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.

Last month prominent jihadi ideologue Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili published a critical essay on the state of online global jihad. Released by Fursan al-Balagh Media (@fursanalbalaagh) on February 17, the eight-page essay stirringly lamented a general decline in participation in jihadi online forums (websites such as Shumukh al-Islam and Shabakat al-Fida’ al-Islamiyya) and pleaded with users to reinvigorate the forums as the proper centers of jihadi discussion and intellectual production online. (For the history of these forums and their important role in jihadi activity, including their ties to al-Qaeda and its affiliates, see here.)

While it is certainly a stretch to say that the forums are falling into desuetude, al-‘Amili’s lament ought to be taken seriously, if only on account of the author’s status in jihadi circles. The pseudonymous shaykh is a prolific jihadi presence online, with numerous essays and fatwas and even a collection of poetry to his name. Who al-‘Amili actually is remains a mystery. He has previously justified guarding his true identity—and any and all details of his background—out of security concerns, citing Qur‘an 74:31: “And none knows the soldiers of your Lord except He.”

His essay in question, “On the Languishing of the Jihadi Forums: Causes and Solutions,” is a passionate appeal to his fellow jihadi netizens. Al-‘Amili describes the forums as a “factory” whose workers ought to be participating in production but who apparently are not working very hard. He admonishes forum members for not honoring the “responsibilities” that forum membership entails, including guarding the forums’ “reputation,” “credibility,” and “preeminence” in the field of jihadi media.

The rest of the essay consists of two parts, the first enumerating the reasons behind the decline of the forums and the second providing suggestions for turning this situation around.

Why the forums are flagging

The first reason for the forums’ “languishing,” according to al-‘Amili, is the periodic disruptions to which they are subjected by “our enemies,” meaning Western governments. In spring of last year, for example, most of the major jihadi forums were shut down for a number of days or weeks. The result of such shutdowns, says the author, is that some forum members seek out temporary online alternatives, though most simply abandon their previous activity out of either fear or negligence.

The second reason is increasing fear of monitoring and tracking by state governments, which has resulted from these routine forum outages.

The third is the “departure into battle” (al-nafir) of forum members heading to theaters of jihad such as Syria. Al-‘Amili proudly notes that “the jihadi forums are universities graduating bands of ansar al-jihad” (supporters of jihad). These “departers” are not to be considered a loss to the forums, though their departure does result in decreased activity. (For a study that confirms the phenomenon of forum members moving to jihad fronts, see here.)

The fourth reason for the forums’ decline, and the one which al-‘Amili focuses on the most, is jihadis’ migration to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Such movement was born out of necessity during the periods when the forums were shut down, he says. This bore fruit temporarily, but in the long run relying on social media is an error that will derogate from the centrality of the forums—“our protected strongholds.” The movement of “major [jihadi] writers and analysts” (kibar al-kuttab wa-l-muhallilin) to social networking sites is also part of this problem, as ordinary forum members have migrated with them in order to follow their writings.

The fifth and final reason for decline is a vicious circle problem following from the withdrawal of both major writers and ordinary members. When the former’s writings have received little attention on the forums from the latter, the major writers have been further discouraged from contributing directly to the forums. Thus the withdrawal of the one reinforces the withdrawal of the other.

How to reinvigorate the forums

The first of al-‘Amili’s “suggested solutions” to reversing the forums’ purported state of disrepair is reaffirming the importance of the forums “as a defensive, lethal weapon for confronting the enemies of the Islamic community.” As much as soldiering on the battlefield, actively participating on the forums ought to be considered jihad in the fullest sense of the word.

Second is for members to have more confidence in the forums’ security and in their own security as users. The forum administrators, he says, are more concerned with the general membership’s safety than with their own; they are utterly devoted to forum security and would never forsake “their soldiers.” It is simply unjustified, he says, to turn away from the forums out of fear that they have been compromised. Nor is it justified to turn away out of fear that participating will lead to being monitored. Members need only use the “identity-disguising programs” (baramij al-takhaffi) designed by “your technician brothers” on the forums to protect their online anonymity.

Third is for major jihadi writers to use the forums as the main outlet for their writings, thus drawing ordinary members back to the forums in tow. Here he directs a plea to “the major [jihadi] writers and shaykhs and analysts” to return to the forums. These latter ought to be “the main theater of your jihad and the principal point of departure for your guidance and your analysis.”

Fourth is to recognize the inadequacy of social media as an alternative to the forums, a point on which al-‘Amili is adamant. On social media, he says, we are only “guests,” for these sites are run by “our enemies.” Inevitably there will come a day when “they shut their doors in our faces.” What is more, relying on social media poses an inherent danger to jihadis as “the enemies” can use these sites against us at any time. If we preference social media we will be “duped” into diminishing and spoiling our efforts. The forums ought to be jihadis’ “base and foundation” online.

Fifth is to attract new technical experts, graphics designers, and translators to “jihadi media organizations”—which publicize on the forums—to improve the effectiveness of the media and messages posted there.

An effective prescription?

If al-‘Amili’s five stated reasons for decline are accurate, is it possible, following the author’s prescription, to reinvigorate the forums? The short answer seems to be no: periodic forum outages have been damaging and the attraction of social media is on the rise. But one must also consider that al-‘Amili is exaggerating the extent of whatever “languishing” is actually taking place. For one thing, jihadi participation in social media has not necessarily undermined the position of the forums.

Recently, Shumukh members posted long lists of jihadi Facebook and Twitter accounts suggested for following. Among the Twitter accounts listed was one belonging to a certain Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili (@al3aamili)—yes, the very author of this essay warning readers of the dangers of social media. Al-‘Amili, in fact, has tweeted quite often since December 2012.

Indeed, social media has probably benefited the state of online global jihad by exposing the jihadi message to more potential sympathizers and recruits. This has had the effect of decentralizing the online jihadi environment, leading to relatively less participation on the forums in the form of discussion and analysis. But the forums are hardly in a state of disrepair; comments and analyses are constantly being posted, often in a parallel effort with Facebook and Twitter jihadi accounts. This is very much the case with the “major writers” whom al-‘Amili mentions—and among whom al-‘Amili may be counted. Their writings tend to originate with independent jihadi media outlets that post to Twitter and Facebook, as well as to the forums.

Rather than languishing, the forums have succeeded in retaining their special position as an unusually private setting for exclusive discussion, which sometimes leads to collaborative efforts. Furthermore, as the main conduits for conveying official al-Qaeda media to the online jihadi community, they continue to enjoy a vaunted status as semi-official websites for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. They may be suffering somewhat, but the jihadi forums are hardly on the down and out.

With the recent arrest of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith (Abu Yusuf Sulayman Jasim Bu Ghayth), al-Qa’ida’s former spokesman and Bin Ladin’s son-in-law, there has been much speculation in the press about a group of senior al-Qa’ida figures who have spent much of the last decade in Iran. In this post I will revisit the writings of these men, all of whom appeared online in unusual circumstances at the end of 2010, and the light that their writings shed on the Iranian sojourn of this group of al-Qa’ida’s pre-9/11 senior leadership. Taken together, these sources suggest that these men constituted a dissident faction within al-Qa’ida, one which in recent years had become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Bin Ladin, Zawahiri, and the direction that the latter had taken al-Qa’ida since the September 11 attacks. It also emerges that Abu Ghaith, while not a member of this faction at the beginning of this period, had by 2010 joined this group in their efforts to correct the errors of al-Qa’ida’s ways.

In a 2007 study of al-Qa’ida’s leadership schisms, I discussed how disagreements over the advisability and religious permissibility of the 9/11 attacks had split the historical leadership of al-Qa’ida into two camps. Following the attacks and the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan in October of 2001, the pro-9/11 group, including Bin Ladin and Zawahiri, fled to Pakistan, while the anti-9/11 group ended up in Iran, where they were placed under house arrest by Iranian authorities. There were a couple of outliers to this explanation of the various trajectories of these leaders, however. Mustafa Abu al-Yazid (Shaykh Sa’id al-Masri) is described in the 9/11 Commission Report as having been among those opposed to 9/11, though he joined Bin Ladin and Zawahiri in Pakistan and eventually rose to the rank of commander of al-Qa’ida’s operations in Afghanistan and spokeman of the al-Qa’ida “General Command” before his death in a drone strike in Pakistan in May of 2010. The other outlier was Abu Ghaith, whose appearance in two famous videos released by al-Qa’ida via al-Jazeera following 9/11 left no question as to his support for those attacks, yet who ended up in Iran along with the most senior members of al-Qa’ida’s anti-9/11 faction.

The most important members of this latter faction were Sayf al-‘Adl, Abu Hafs al-Muritani, and Abu’l-Walid al-Masri. Sayf al-‘Adl (Muhammad Salah al-Din Zaydan al-Masri) was in charge of al-Qa’ida’s training operations in Afghanistan during the 1990s and, following the death of Abu Hafs al-Masri (Muhammad ‘Atif) in November of 2001, became the head of al-Qa’ida’s military committee, theoretically in charge of all of al-Qa’ida’s kinetic activities. In June of 2002 he sent an angry letter to Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (addressed here as “Mukhtar”) regarding the disastrous consequences that the 9/11 attacks had brought upon the organization and calling for an immediatie cessation of external activities.

Abu Hafs al-Muritani (Mahfouz Ould al-Walid) was the pre-9/11 head of al-Qa’ida’s shari’a committee, responsible for determining the religious legitimacy of its actions. According to the 9/11 Commission Report he presented Bin Ladin with a brief, backed by Qur’anic citations, arguing that the attacks would violate Islamic law.  More recently he has stated that in late 2001, after his objections were overridden by Bin Ladin, he submitted his resignation to the al-Qa’ida chief several weeks prior to 9/11 (on which more below).

Abu’l-Walid al-Masri (Mustafa Hamid) is something of an unusual case, as he was never a formal member of al-Qa’ida. An Egyptian journalist who joined the Haqqani network in Afghanistan in 1979, Abu’l-Walid was close to the al-Qa’ida leadership from the beginning and taught at al-Qa’ida camps in the 1990s, though he had been critical of Bin Ladin’s leadership abilities since at least 1989. He has been credited by two other senior al-Qa’ida figures with having helped convince Bin Ladin to redirect al-Qa’ida’s stategic focus from the “near enemy” to the “far enemy” – the United States – an issue I discuss most fully here (at p. 97f). Though not privy to al-Qa’ida’s internal disputes about the 9/11 attacks in late 2001, he has expressed nothing but the utmost contempt for those attacks in the years since, first as a grievous strategic blunder that played into the hands of the US and Israel, and more recently along the lines of “truther” conspiracy theories.

These three men, then, along with Abu Ghaith, several members of Bin Ladin’s immediate family, and a number of mid-level al-Qa’ida figures have until recently all been living in Iran, though there is conflicting information regarding the extent to which their freedom of movement had been restricted by Iranian authorities. (The most detailed account of their early conditions of confinement comes from Abu’l-Walid’s former wife Rabiah Hutchinson, who fled Afghanistan to Iran before leaving her then-husband and being repatriated to Australia in 2003). Up to 2009 little to nothing had been heard from any of them, though Sayf al-‘Adl’s operational activities popped up on the radar, so to speak, on a number of occasions during the 2000s, as mentioned here. The senior al-Qa’ida leaders among the group in Iran – Sayf, al-Muritani and Abu Ghaith – were entirely absent throughout this period from official al-Qa’ida messaging and propaganda production. As far as the rest of the world was concerned they had gone silent – until, that is, they all appeared on Abu’l-Walid’s website in late 2010.

According to his former wife, at the beginning of his stay in Iran Abu’l-Walid was under house arrest and denied any phone or internet access, but these restrictions must have eventually been relaxed, since in 2007 Abu’l-Walid began posting some of his older writings to an obscure blog. Abu Hafs al-Muritani has recently told al-Jazeera that their confinement in Iran went through several stages, with “the last stage being not house arrest but rather hospitality, albeit with some restrictions.” Beginning in 2009, Abu’l-Walid expanded his online activities, becoming a regular contributor to the Taliban’s Arabic-language online magazine al-Sumud. He also returned to issuing withering critiques of al-Qa’ida and its strategic and ideological failings, often cross-posting these essays to jihadi forums – much to the dismay of al-Qa’ida’s cyber-loyalists.

If the e-jihadis hadn’t liked what Abu’l-Walid had to say up to this point, in mid-November of 2010 he dropped a bombshell. In the middle of that year Abu’l-Walid had migrated his online activities from the blog to a new website, the now defunct mafa.asia. On November 15 he posted to the forums, as a mafa.asia exclusive, a lengthy new book by none other than al-Qa’ida’s former spokesperson Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, with an introduction by the former al-Qa’ida religious leader Abu Hafs al-Muritani. Entitled “Twenty Counsels on the Path of Jihad,” the text created a great deal of online consternation. Here were two of the most senior members of the organization’s historical leadership, who hadn’t been heard from in years, all of a sudden issuing new messages via the website of one of al-Qa’ida’s most notorious jihadi detractors.

And it wasn’t simply the method of distribution that caused alarm. Though not naming any names, Abu Ghaith’s book and al-Muritani’s introduction were clearly part of the genre of “revisions” or “recantation” texts (muraji’at), a growing body of literature by major jihadi figures offering mea culpas for former errors and diagnosing the ills besetting contemporary jihadi activism. Introducing the text as part of a planned “revival of jihadi education” series, Abu Hafs al-Muritani explains:

“I saw that after the last three decades [of jihadi experiences around the world], the jihadi arena lacked sufficient educational guidance, and was in great and dire need of this. There is nothing aside from what the martyred mujahid shaykh ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam left in some of his audio tapes and books … but this is not enough…. So it has become necessary to issue the like of this series of educational essays to correct the path, direct the activity, treat the illnesses, apply balm to the wounds, refine the hearts, and provide the field [of jihad] and its members what they need in terms of guidance to remind and assist them and to raise them to a level that befits them.”

Here is a man best known as having been among the most senior figures in Bin Ladin’s organization saying that no worthy guidance for jihad has come out since the days of ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, who was assassinated in 1989 – not quite a ringing endorsement of al-Qa’ida’s more recent leadership capabilities, to say the least. That he would choose to launch his effort to “correct the path” from the opposition press, as it were, is a pretty clear indication that the Iranian faction had lost any hearing within al-Qa’ida central.

The book by Abu Ghaith that these remarks introduce is quite lengthy, extending to over a hundred pages, and it sounds the same notes as al-Muritani. At first glance it appears as a straightforward pamphlet of moral maxims and general operational rules of thumb for Islamist militants, illustrated with apposite anecdotes from Islamic scripture – something like a “Twenty Habits of Highly Effective Jihadis” self help book. But one need not read too closely between the lines to see the implied criticism of al-Qa’ida’s leaders. In its first line Abu Ghaith says that in his book “I have set forth the most important topics of guidance on which I feel that giving sincere advice (tanasuh) is a matter of grave importance for the jihadi leadership and members.” Sincere advice (nasiha) is a technical term in conservative Islamic discourses for formal criticism, often of a political nature; Bin Ladin’s early broadsides against the Saudi royal family in the 1990s were issued under the name of an “Advice (nasiha) and Reform Committee.” Nor is it difficult to connect the specific issues about which Abu Ghaith offers “sincere advice” to some of the more controversial aspects of Bin Ladin’s and Zawahiri’s leadership. The book speaks of the pitfalls of love of power, autocratic leadership, overemphasis on media activities, sectarian divisiveness, ideological fanaticism, and an unwillingness to work with a broader set of Islamist actors, including non-violent political groups (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood). The journalist Jamal Isma’il pointed to some of the more obvious implied criticisms in an article in al-Hayat about Abu Ghaith’s book. Isma’il writes: “In a manner unprecedented in al-Qa’ida or the militant groups loyal to it, a new book by Sulayman Jasim Bu Ghayth … offers scathing criticism of al-Qa’ida leader Usama bin Ladin – without mentioning him by name – and the acts of jihadi groups, writing that ‘it is not permissible for one man to use the blood of others to experiment in what seems to him to be rightousness’.”

One month later, on December 17, 2010, Abu’l-Walid issued his own piece of sincere advice, though his was characteristically more direct. The title of the essay says it all, really: “Disbanding al-Qa’ida is the Best Option before Bin Ladin.” He again posted this on mafa.asia and the jihadi forums, though Shumukh, the forum most closely aligned with al-Qa’ida’s leadership, banned him from the message board and deleted his posts a week later. This was followed at the end of that month by a series of new messages from Sayf al-‘Adl – again, the first time that this al-Qa’ida leader had directly addressed the public since 9/11 – a series that I discussed at the time here. All of this was quite remarkable – a bloc of al-Qa’ida’s old guard emerging from years of silence only to undermine the legitimacy of their former employers – though it all unfolded to almost no notice in the West.

Since issuing these critiques in late 2010, this entire cast of characters has, so far as we know, left Iran. Sayf was reported to have been released from Iran in a prisoner swap arranged by the Haqqani network for an Iranian diplomat kidnapped in Pakistan, though the details surrounding that affair are still rather murky. Abu’l-Walid was repatriated to Egypt at the end of August of 2011. Abu Ghaith, as we now know, left Iran in January of this year. The last member of the faction, Abu Hafs al-Muritani, was transferred to Mauritanian custody from Iran in April of 2012 and released from jail in Mauritania last July.

Last October al-Muritani sat down for two lengthy interviews with al-Jazeera (parts one and two), shedding further light on the Iranian exile of al-Qa’ida’s dissident faction.  There is much of interest in this interview, but I will only highlight some of the statements that bear upon this post. In his interview, al-Muritani first directly addresses and confirms the 9/11 Commission Report’s characterization of him as having opposed the 9/11 attacks. When asked about his “revision” or “recantation” – i.e., the texts published by Abu’l-Walid in 2010 – he denies that his current position is a revision, stating that he had always objected to takfir (declaring other Muslims heretics) and indiscriminate violence. Aligning with other insider accounts, such as the autobiography of Fazul ‘Abdallah Muhammad, al-Muritani says that the debates within al-Qa’ida about the 9/11 attacks were not about the details of the operation – these were not known, even to the upper-level leadership – but rather over the idea of a violent attack on US territory itself. He also says that Abu Muhammad al-Masri, a senior member of al-Qa’ida’s military committee and also believed to be or to have been in detention in Iran, was of the faction opposed to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Muritani says that his objections to 9/11 were purely on religious grounds, and that ultimately it was due to the autocratic nature of Bin Ladin’s leadership that all the various objections expressed by his inner circle were dismissed and the attacks carried out. He says that he does not approve of the tactics of the branch of al-Qa’ida operting in northern Mali, saying that what they are doing is not the right way to establish an Islamic state. Regarding his stay in Iran, he says that an arrangement was made with the authorities whereby al-Qa’ida members committed to carrying out no attacks from within Iran, and he says that overall the treatment by the Iranians was good, though it had its ups and downs. Al-Muritani says that no Western or Arab governments were given access to him or other al-Qa’ida refugees, nor were they interrogated during their stay in Iran. He reiterates the criticisms from the “Twenty Counsels,” saying that the jihadi movements are wrong to denounce the political Islamist movements and that jihad means nothing if it is not the struggle of the community as a whole. He also repeats the criticisms of indiscriminate killing and sectarian devisiveness, saying that while holding some heretical views the Shi’a are nonetheless Muslims, contrary to the view taken by al-Qa’ida in Iraq under Zarqawi.

As with the statements issued through Abu’l-Walid’s blog in 2010, al-Muritani’s interview was not well-received by the online jihadi community. One of the main platforms of salafi jihadi pronouncements, the Minbar at-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad website, posted a lengthy denunciation of Abu Hafs for his “recantation,” refuting at length the “heresies” uttered by him in the interview (such as that the Shi’a are Muslims).  Ultimately, though, the interview simply confirmed what many on the forums had already suspected: that a group of the most famous leaders of the historical al-Qa’ida had soured on Bin Ladin, Zawahiri, and some of the more extremist tendencies of post-9/11 jihadism.

Finally, I would note that there was speculation in some of the initial reports about Sayf al-‘Adl’s release in 2009 that the Iranian diplomat prisoner swap had also included the release of Abu Ghaith and Abu Hafs al-Muritani at that time. Since we now know that wasn’t the case, it raises further questions about the current whereabouts of Sayf al-‘Adl. He, and his colleague Abu Muhammad al-Masri, may very well still be in Iran, or only recently released. I would imagine that it is the fates of these men that the US government is most eager to learn details of from Abu Ghaith, now that he is in custody.

Three weeks ago members of Shumukh al-Islam, al-Qaeda’s premier online forum, began collaboration on a “comprehensive strategy” for the ongoing Syrian jihad. In a thread started by a certain “Handasat al-Qaeda,” several dozen members of the access-restricted site set down a plethora of observations and recommendations.

A week later, on February 9, the same member to initiate the thread condensed these contributions into a single strategic document, intended to represent the forum membership’s thinking as a whole. The author identified the document as sensitive and not to be shared except via email with jihadis lacking access to Shumukh. (The Shumukh forum, which has direct ties to al-Qaeda, is password-protected and does not readily register new users.) In the spirit of transparency, I have taken the liberty of translating the document in its entirety (see below).

In all likelihood, Shumuk’s so-called “comprehensive strategy” for Syria has less value for jihadis on the battlefield as actionable strategy than it does for researchers as a window into how important jihadi thinkers are processing the unending Syrian civil war. In this regard, the document is particularly revealing in two respects.

First, contrary to the triumphalist tone of much Syrian jihadi media, the Shumukh members are not upbeat in their description of ongoing and anticipated events. For the present, there is hope mixed with desperation and fear; for the future, a strong sense that the jihadis will suffer strangulation from all sides. In their worldview, some form of Western intervention to stymie jihadi success is all but assured; the West, with its Israeli and Iranian allies, will seal Syria’s borders and proceed to eliminate the jihadi threat, carving up Syria and elevating the “Islamists” to power.

Second, Shumukh’s recommendations presuppose a very long war in Syria. These include such things as rapidly increasing the number of recruits before the borders are sealed, making sure to take control of the regime’s heavy and unconventional weapons, establishing a unified media organization for more effective propaganda, and refraining, at all costs, from allying with “Islamists” such as the Muslim Brotherhood, no matter how attractive this might seem.

Read in full, Shumukh’s “comprehensive strategy” for Syria presents an unmistakably grim prognostication for jihadism’s future in Syria—indeed a grim prognostication for Syria’s future in general. It is an attempt to think realistically about the challenges to true jihadi success in Syria in the coming months and years.

Translation of Shumukh al-Islam’s “comprehensive strategy” for Syria:

As you know, brothers, the intention of this thread is to bring together the greatest possible number of strategic ideas and proposals from which our mujahidin brothers and their supporters, especially those on the fighting front in Syria and its surrounding areas, may benefit. We would like here for our forums, in addition to their traditional role of support, publication, mobilization, and exhortation, to be centers for research and sophisticated studies that issue reports and advisory recommendations by which we may progress, by firm and well-studied steps on our path toward the virtuous caliphate, and arrive by God’s help and support at the desired objective in the quickest time possible and at the lowest possible cost. This is just as our enemies have centers for research and advisory studies, directed by contemptuous experts and thinkers, constantly issuing recommendations and reports which their countries’ governments act upon.

Here we will combine what we managed to summarize of previous and other entries, reducing them to a number of important and all-inclusive strategic points. These will give us, and our brothers in Syria and its environs, a clear picture of what our enemies are planning for us and what we must do to resist them, nay what we must do to take charge of our present and future activities and to compel our enemies to respond to what we—not they—are planning.

First, there are two points which constitute red lines and on which there can be no debate with anyone, whether in Syria or elsewhere. The first is ruling on the basis of the Islamic Shari‘ah, that is, striving to establish an Islamic state that rules according to the book of God and the normative practice of His Prophet, peace and prayers be upon him, in accordance with the understanding of the pious forefathers of this [Islamic] community and the interpretation of their pious successors. The second is non-recognition of any Sykes-Picot boundaries between our Islamic countries, near or distant, except insofar as Islamic activity may require harmless formalities, like the requirements of travel and logistical cooperation, on account of what this serves us in gathering soldiers and support and the like.

In light of the foregoing points, here we will set down certain recommendations, as well as [describe] certain events anticipated—by God’s will—to transpire.

Events anticipated and ongoing:

First, most of our thinkers expect the struggle in Syria to endure for a long time, and it is necessary therefore to make the needed provisions for this.

Second, there is currently an ongoing race, and there will be Crusader-Israeli-Iranian efforts, to wrest control of or destroy the chemical weapons facilities within Syria before they come under the control of those whom this criminal alliance believes are a danger to it: namely, the jihadis or Hezbollah[i] from the perspective of the Jews and the Crusaders, and the jihadis from the perspective of the Iranian Zoroastrians and the Crusaders.[ii]

Third, a Crusader power will, inevitably, arrive on Syrian territory, using multiple pretexts such as “preserving peace” or “protecting the Jews” or “protecting the poor and innocent Alawite community!!!!”

Fourth, there will be efforts to partition Syrian territory—or partition will be imposed upon it—with a view to protecting the Alawite sect so that the latter may serve as a Crusader-Jewish-Zoroastrian nail in the throat of the Sunnis in greater Syria. This is an outcome which must be guarded against no matter how many Islamists engage in the conspiracy, either as clients cognizant of the conspiracy, or as fools ignorant of it.

Fifth, the revolution and the mujahidin are currently being besieged in an effort to prevent their acquiring arms, while at the same time military, logistical, and financial support are being provided to the Alawite regime. There are, of course, a number of reasons for this, all of them being interests of the alliance mentioned above:

  • prolonging the war until the desired arrangement of cards and puppets can emerge;
  • bleeding the financial reserves of the regime and sucking dry everything in this foolish Alawite’s possession;
  • transforming those financial reserves into arms and weapons stocks for the regime, that it might use them against its people in bombarding and destroying them, or that they might fall as booty into the hands of the revolution’s fighting units;
  • exploiting the revolutionaries’ seizure of the regime’s weapons in order to destroy what remains of it [the regime].

With time, everyone will be exhausted, all weapons in Syria will be destroyed, and all signs of civilization will be obliterated and cast back to what existed before the Stone Age. Thus will the path be paved for direct and indirect military intervention in Syria, and for redrawing the map in accordance with the wishes of the Zionist-Crusader-Zoroastrian alliance.

Sixth, different forms of intervention will multiply in Syria, which will become filled with contradictory ideas leading to major disagreements among opposition forces, as well as among the independent fighting units of foreign origin fighting on the battlefield in league with these forces.

Seventh, and with the transformation of the revolution’s course into an “Islamist” one, “drawing on the support of God and intending to establish His rule on the ground,” it is the “secular Islamists” who will be brought to power, power being their main objective. In this they will be encouraged by the forces of the international conspiracy, but on the condition that they [the Islamists] oppose with all their might this jihadi Islamic tide aspiring to the virtuous caliphate. What will happen, in other words, is that pseudo-Muslims will be attacking Muslims, thus sparing the infidel powers the evil of fighting themselves. Of course, this group (i.e., the secularist pseudo-Muslims) is that which will be provisioned with weapons from now on, so that instead of against the Alawites they [the weapons] may be used against the [conspiracy’s] real enemy, which is those who wish to implement the rule of the Islamic Shari‘ah.

Eighth, after the exhaustion or downfall of the regime, the Zionist-Crusader-Zoroastrian alliance and its allies in Syria will, if possible, reorient its compass in a new direction, sealing off all borders to forestall an influx of jihadi recruits and any kind of logistical support for them. This will be with a view to besieging them [the jihadis] and beginning a confrontation with those of them present inside the country.

Ninth, the shared interests [in besieging the jihadis] mentioned in point eight will expand to encompass the Brotherhood government in Turkey, the client Son of the Crusaders in Jordan and his Brotherhood friends, Lebanese Hezbollah, the Safavid government in Iraq, the hypocrite government in the Hijaz, the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, and others who are clearly with them.

Tenth, in sum, perhaps it will be that our brothers in Syria are exposed to extraordinary pressure, assault, forced retreat, ignominy, and many, many other things. But all of this, God permitting, will be of a piece with the greatness of the trial and the test, and the greatness of the responsibility assumed for pushing the community of one and a half billion Muslims toward salvation. And few are those, unfortunately, deserving of such credit.

As for the recommendations that are advised:

First, patience…and more patience, and trust in God alone in all things, and dependence upon Him, be He praised and exalted. For He is the Bringer of success and the All-Knowing about His servants.

Second, keeping in our eyes the principal objective at all times no matter what the challenges. This is: the annihilation of the Alawites, then the establishment of God’s law in the land of Syria—in preparation for erecting the larger virtuous caliphate on all of the earth—and removing all obstacles standing in the way.

Third, making the necessary provisions and taking the necessary measures for what will follow the fall or toppling of the regime. In fact, these are of greater concern to us than the ongoing war, be one a mujahid inside Syria or a supporter somewhere around the world.

Fourth, collecting the greatest possible amount of heavy and unconventional weapons and guarding them in full security, as there will be great need for them in the future.

Fifth, increasing recruitment [of mujahidin] extensively and securely—securely meaning the possibility of recruiting large fighting units for service with Jabhat al-Nusrah while instructing individuals in the correct [Islamic] creed and path, periodically polishing them [in this way], and selecting those whose credibility has been established for dependable battalions…and things such as this—as well as establishing links and alliances, insofar as these do not contravene God’s law, with the many influential forces in Syria, such as other Islamic organizations, tribal shaykhs, and others.

Sixth, working to increase greatly the inflow of recruits to Syria, both because of what need the brothers have there and because the openness of these borders will not persist; rather the borders will soon be closed. But this inflow need not require emptying other [jihad] fronts of the fighters and young men who are needed there; rather [the latter should spare only] what they have above and beyond their local need and in proportion to the need of our brothers in Syria if it be greater.

Seventh, all forces of Ansar al-Shari‘ah throughout the world (in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, and even in Europe) must take concerted action in two ways:

  • First, work to increase the number of lectures and activities relating to preaching, consciousness raising, and communications—with regard to the media, there is today a concerted media war against the brothers in Syria and especially from the channel “al-Jazeera,” for recently this lying channel has attributed all the various operations and activities in Syria to the “Free Syrian Army”; this is a criminal and programmatic effort to brainwash the viewers and render the past and future of the revolution empty of any activity or space for Islamic fighters—and work to inform the Islamic community of the truth of the struggle [in Syria], of its nature as global and not merely limited to Syria, or as merely opposing oppressive regimes, but rather as opposing the murderous Alawites, those of the Zoroastrians standing in the background holding imperial Persian dreams, and a Crusader-Jewish alliance that provides unlimited support to anyone wishing to destroy the community of Islam.
  • Second, work to gather contributions and support for our brothers in Syria and ensure that they reach them, as well as working via the proper mechanism to sustain necessary recruitment activity and engaging in demonstrations highlighting the extent of the interconnectedness of our interests around the world. For we are a single community, not divided by geographical or other boundaries. All must know that the issue of Syria is a pivotal issue for us, and that no participant in a conspiracy against the brothers there will ever be spared, no matter how far away he may be.

Eighth, the military and civilian units of global jihad supporters in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine must be fully prepared for mobilization if that is required. What this means is that there first be peaceful activities, as we have indicated [in point seven], but that they be accompanied by the threat of plunging the entire region into a vast war if our brothers in Syria are besieged or conspired against whether [by elements] from beyond Syria or by the brothers of the revolution itself. The interests of anyone participating in such a conspiracy would be targeted. Fingers should be on the trigger. Indeed, this point is most important for establishing a balance of fear that allows the brothers in Syria the support necessary to be able to concentrate on their activities within the country.

In this vein, the brothers from the Islamic State of Iraq, may god strengthen them, who are the true strategic depth for the brothers in Syria, must work to prevent the Safavids from having any presence on the eastern Syrian border. They must ensure sustained logistical support and prevent the Safavids from partaking in any effort to besiege the brothers in Syria in the future, as well as stop overland support and other things that would diminish pressure on the Alawites in the west of Syria.

Ninth, the fighting units of Jabhat al-Nusrah, may God grant them victory, and their allies should turn their fire and missiles in the direction of Alawite cities with great intensity. For such will work to upset their security and encourage them to flee, particularly those possessing wealth, thus leading to the collapse of the regime’s bases of support. The latter consist of the finances provided by Alawite businessmen, and which is necessary for funding the different groups of the shabiha.

Tenth, the fighting units of Jabhat al-Nusrah and their allies should work to establish a broad and unified shura council and to create an executive committee for carrying out the work of governance, in order to fill the void and manage people’s affairs in the areas under our control. In this way services and other forms of aid may be rendered, people may be educated and enlightened about the creed and Islam, and they may be informed about the international conspiracy against them.

Eleventh, establishing an office or large media organization that would work around the clock for Jabhat al-Nusrah and the fighting units in Syria allied with it, providing the people with the necessary facts. For the media in this generation are equivalent to half the army, and sometimes international wars are led by means of the media alone. This [proposed] office can produce local broadcasts, ensuring that these reach every home in Syria and thus allowing the true, undistorted voice of the mujahidin access to the ears of the people.

Twelfth, it is incumbent upon all preachers and religious scholars to bear their legal responsibilities to guide and enlighten the [Islamic] community. For your brothers in Syria, in the coming days, will be in the utmost need of what you can do [for them].

Thirteenth, establishing a professional intelligence apparatus to carry out special operations: that is, to clean up anything dirtying the path to the creation of an Islamic state.

Fourteenth, urging our brothers in Jabhat al-Nusrah to seize control of geographically strategic areas; also urging them to seize barracks containing heavy weaponry so as to increase the conventional weapons stocks that will be of the greatest importance in the future.

[Finally,] a notice: Personally, I do not at the present time advise striking what is referred to as “Israel.” Doing so would widen the circle of enemies and [war] fronts around our brothers while they are in an inflexible state of full exertion. [I would only advise it] in the event [“Israel”] immediately join the battles alongside the Alawites against the mujahidin, or if we were responding to Israeli tests of our determination, which they will carry out once the mujahidin have or are nearing complete control of Syria.

This is what was possible for us to bring together of points and recommendations. We ask God Almighty to grant us success by means of them, to grant our brothers in Syria success by means of them, to grant them victory, and to establish for them the virtuous caliphate, by the permission of Him—be He exalted.


[i] In a typical play on words, Hezbollah is rendered in this document Ḥizb al-Lāt, meaning the “party” not of God but rather of a well-known pre-Islamic pagan deity.

[ii] The author has a very confused understanding of Middle Eastern alliance politics, a common feature of jihadi writings.

Last year witnessed the outbreak of a major feud between two of the most prominent and active ideologues in the jihadi movement: the Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi and the Mauritanian Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti. As Joas Wagemakers wrote in June and July of last year, the quarrel emerged in May 2012 following two perceived provocations by Abu Basir. First came the Syrian’s statements praising the generally secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and criticizing the radical jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusrah; second was his critical letter to the Yemeni jihadi group Ansar al-Shari‘ah. Al-Shinqiti followed with a furious—and ceaseless—campaign of repudiation.

Since last May the context of this dispute has changed significantly. Abu Basir has abandoned his London refuge, where he had lived for more than a decade, for the battlefields of northern Syria. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusrah no longer enjoys a monopoly on Syrian Islamic militancy, as a large number of groups has emerged fighting under an “Islamic banner.”

Yet the war of words between the two jihadi ideologues has intensified over the past months, becoming the most significant bout of intellectual jihadi infighting since the 2005 quarrel between Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi. The tension in jihadi media has been palpable. Two days ago, al-Bunyan al-Marsus, a jihadi outfit promoting unity among Syrian Islamists, issued a plea for reconciliation between the two shaykhs. As the following explains, this is not likely to ease tensions. The intellectual divide separating these opponents is vast, and the battle lines have been boldly drawn—with possible implications for the unfolding Syrian jihad.

Dramatis personæ

Little is known about Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti besides his presumed Mauritanian nationality. His anonymity, however, has not hindered his rising stature, which derives from affiliation with the website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad. This is the site founded by the now jailed Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi of Jordan. In 2009 al-Maqdisi organized a Shari‘ah Council of some dozen like-minded scholars to handle queries on his website, among whom was al-Shinqiti. For the past several months, al-Shinqiti has been the Council’s sole acting representative. The Minbar also publishes his many books and essays, all written within the last few years.

A great deal more is known about the 53-year-old Abu Basir al-Tartusi (real name, ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Mustafa Halimah), who fled his native Syria in 1980 after fighting against the previous Asad regime. Abu Basir made a name for himself in the 1990s in Jordan with books calling for jihad against the impious rulers of the Arab world. Around the millennium he took refuge in London and started a website hosting his books and commentaries. (For more information, see here and here.)

Abu Basir has long posed as an internal critic of the jihadi movement. For example, he categorically opposes suicide (or martyrdom) operations on theological and strategic grounds and holds that non-Muslims in Western and Muslim countries are entitled to protection from attack. He accordingly denounced the 2005 London bombings as “disgraceful.” He has argued, in a pragmatic vein, that jihad focus on the near enemy—as opposed to the far enemy strategy of al-Qaeda—and eschew needless violence.

When protests against the Asad regime broke out in March 2011 Abu Basir started a Facebook page called “The Islamic Opposition to the Syrian Regime,” urging jihad against the government, and in May 2012 he arrived in Syria himself. Although he is often pictured armed, he defines his role in the Syrian jihad as “simply a servant and an adviser to all the heroic rebels.” He has been seen among various rebel groups with Islamic names (see here and here, for example), but certainly not with the al-Qaeda group Jabhat al-Nusrah.

Al-Shinqiti attacks

Despite his contrarian stances, Abu Basir has long been a welcome member of the jihadi community. Even al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri underscored his “respect and appreciation” for Abu Basir’s “support for jihad and the mujahidin.” Al-Shinqiti, however, has made it his personal objective to write Abu Basir completely out of the jihadi fold.

The Mauritanian fired his opening salvo in May 2012 with the publication of “The Disgusting Deviations of the Critic of Ansar al-Shari‘ah: A Refutation of Shaykh Abu Basir.” (For further coverage of this, see here.) This monograph, a line-by-line critique of Abu Basir’s letter to the Yemeni AQAP-linked group Ansar al-Shari‘ah criticizing it for unnecessary violence in post-revolutionary Yemen, accused Abu Basir of obstructing jihad on the pretext of offering advice. Whereas the Syrian believed it wrong to target Yemeni soldiers following the deposition of the Yemeni president, the Mauritanian held that jihad ought to continue. Al-Shinqiti called one of Abu Basir’s arguments “the ugliest thing I have ever heard in my life in terms of obstruction.” Revolution, he claimed, had become for Abu Basir “an end in itself,” more important than implementation of the shari‘ah.

The following day al-Shinqiti attacked again, this time in a fatwa castigating Abu Basir for his stances toward the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusrah. (For more on this, see here and here). These remarks were indicative of a “large methodological shortcoming.”

In September 2012 al-Shinqiti released yet two more monographs chiding Abu Basir—and this time also his followers—in equally harsh terms. The first of these, called “The Enlightenment of Some Warnings in the Book Jihad and Shari‘ah Politics,” attacked Abu Basir’s forenamed book that called on jihadi groups to reform and reassess their strategies. The second, called “The Illumination of the Truth of Abu Basir’s Method,” comprised fourteen enumerated points of criticism and an extended plea to his followers to desist from supporting him.

Continuing his line of criticism, al-Shinqiti writes in these monographs that the chief aim of Abu Basir’s “advice” literature is to put out the fires of jihadis’ passion and instill in them fear of activity. “He considers himself a theoretician of jihad, and yet at the same time he supports not one action of the mujahidin’s actions.” Some of his fatwas, al Shinqiti believes, even played a role in decreasing the number of jihadi attacks in the United States and Europe. ‘Abd al-Bari ‘Atwan, the editor of the London-based daily al-Quds al-‘Arabi, he says, is a bigger supporter of al-Qaeda than Abu Basir.

Addressing himself to the Syrian’s supporters, al-Shinqiti says that it is time they recognize that their shaykh has defected from “the jihadi methodology,” much like other erstwhile jihadis, including Salman al-‘Awdah, have before him. “Know,” he continues, “that Abu Basir’s dispute with the mujahidin is not a dispute over one or two issues but rather one between two methodologies (manhajayn).” Therefore his opinions and judgments are to be read with great caution.

Abu Basir fires back

Abu Basir has issued two responses to al-Shinqiti, the first in November 2012 and the second in early January of this year. They are both short—about two to three pages each—in comparison with the Mauritanian’s more than 100 pages, and betray a certain reluctance. Abu Basir states that while he preferred to stay silent on the matter of al-Shinqiti’s accusations, he finally relented in view of the many solicitations for a response. But for all his reluctance, he does not mince words.

Al-Shinqiti, says Abu Basir, is a delusional “extremist” and “khariji” whose critiques amount to implicit takfir (excommunication). “He sees no farther than his nose” and writes as if he held “the keys to paradise in his hand.” In his lying screeds, “he interprets your advice to some of the mujahidin brothers as if it were an expression of enmity toward God, his Prophet, and the believers.” And he piles up scriptural evidence like firewood. Abu Basir states that while he, Abu Basir, is busy supporting jihad against the Asad regime, al-Shinqiti spends his time drumming up opposition not to Asad but to Abu Basir.

Al-Shinqiti ought not to be praised as brave and bold, Abu Basir warns, for he is in fact a coward, “too scared even to identify himself.” This “unknown jurist of his age,” he says mockingly, does not even deserve a proper refutation. Those who truly deserve one are “the brothers in charge of Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad. How do they allow such dishonesty, extremism, and vileness to be published on their site?” (Ironically, the site also hosts a large number of Abu Basir’s writings.)

Most important for this discussion is that Abu Basir finds al-Shinqiti a serious threat to opposition unity in Syria. He is worried by the spreading influence there of his “takfiri words,” for certain Syrians are paying them notice. The result, he claims, is that some in the Syrian opposition are preparing for a confrontation with their fellow Muslims on the pretext of fighting the FSA.

Reconciliation?

Clearly the temperature of this exchange does not bode well for any hoped-for reconciliation between the two shaykhs. It may even portend confrontation between two kinds of Syrian jihadi groups somewhere down the road: those concerned with immediately seizing power and establishing God’s law by whatever means necessary, and those more willing to cooperate with the less Islamist elements of the opposition.

Recently, Abu Basir endorsed a new conglomerate of Islamic militant units called the Syrian Islamic Front, which represents—at least probably to his mind—the latter kind of group. The group’s charter mentions “gradualism” with respect to political objectives and “coexistence” with Syrian minorities. While Abu Basir criticized some parts of the charter, these were mere quibbles which the group kindly noted and brought to the attention of its leadership.

Abu Basir remains critical of Jabhat al-Nusrah, which he did not defend after its designation by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. He did recently affirm his “affection for all the mujahidin” in Syria notwithstanding “reservations about some of their strategies and policies.” But the very next day he criticized Jabhat al-Nusrah for its excessive secrecy.

One might anticipate that this rather intellectual dispute between Abu Basir and al-Shinqiti will have practical implications for the ongoing Syrian jihad. It may be some time before the full extent of these implications is borne out—or perhaps the mujahidin will allow all this to pass over their heads. But it is clear from Abu Basir’s writing that he, at least, sees confrontation between Syrian jihadis as a looming threat and possibility.

Stealth Takfir: The Discreet Excommunication of Muhammad Morsi

Posted: 24th January 2013 by Cole Bunzel in Egypt

[Editor's Note: Jihadica is pleased to welcome Cole Bunzel to its lineup. Cole is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies, which has become one of the world's leading incubators of scholars of the jihadi movement.]

Last week, resurfaced videos of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi making anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist remarks stoked vigorous debate in American media. A week earlier, another resurfaced video of Morsi, this time making apparently anti-Islamic remarks, highlighted a quite different debate taking place in the realm of jihadi media: Is Muhammad Morsi a kafir (unbeliever)?

In a recent fatwa, Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, the influential Mauritanian Jihadi-Salafi ideologue, betrayed a remarkable level of caution in taking up this question. His fatwa, along with his other writings on takfir (excommunication) of Morsi, is a revealing political statement. It has less to do with the theology of faith than with Jihadi-Salafi strategy in post-Arab Spring Egypt.

Al-Shinqiti’s fatwa

Al-Shinqiti, a member of the Shari‘a Council of the  website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad and currently its only acting mufti, responded on January 6 to a question over the potentially incriminating video mentioned above. The questioner, a Dagestani student living in Egypt, linked to the 2011 clip in which Morsi said in an interview: “there is no difference/dispute between the Islamic creed and the Christian creed” (ma-fish khilaf bayn al-‘aqidah al-islamiyyah wa-l-‘aqidah al-masihiyyah). Morsi was speaking about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral coalition allying with the Salafi Nur Party, and made this comment only to say that the Brotherhood would even consider allying with Christians. As one of his supporters wrote in an online forum, by the word khilaf (“difference/dispute”) Morsi clearly meant mashakil and sira‘at (“problems” and “struggles”). He was not blurring the lines between Islam and Christianity.

Read the rest of this entry »

Ansar al-Din was created in November 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali, a legendary Tuareg powerbroker in northern Mali who led two rebellions against the Malian government in the 1990′s and in 2006. According to journalistic accounts as well as scholarly writing, Ag Ghali grew increasingly religious and joined the Tablighi Jamaat, the Pakistani Islamic missionary organization known for its piety as well as quietist political views. However, Ag Ghali at some point moved away from the group, and in 2010 Saudi authorities expelled him from his diplomatic post in Jeddah due to suspected contacts with unknown radicals.

Various sources claim that Ag Ghali only founded Ansar al-Din after failing in his efforts to become the leader of the MNLA and of the Ifoghas Tuareg tribe, though as far as I can tell these claims all come from sources close to or within the MNLA.  Initially composed of veteran rebels from the same tribe (and in many cases the same clan), Ag Ghali’s ranks were swollen in early 2012 by the addition of at least 40 AQIM fighters brought by his cousin, an AQIM commander named Hamada Ag Hama (commonly known as Abdelkrim el-Targui).

Ansar al-Din played a key role in fighting the Malian army in Aguelhoc (where nearly 100 Malian soldiers were reportedly executed), Tessalit, and Kidal. After the March 2012 coup and the departure of the Malian army from the north, Ansar al-Din took responsibility for the cities of Kidal and Timbuktu. At least one “Ansar al-Din” leader in Timbuktu, Sanda Ould Boumama (Sanda Abou Mohamed), was a suspected GSPC and AQIM member, and AQIM is largely believed to have exerted real control over the city.

Various Tuareg Ansar al-Din leaders and spokesmen engaged in negotiations in Burkina Faso and Algeria, and Ag Ghali himself endorsed mediation efforts to achieve a political solution to the Malian crisis. Nevertheless, the group’s leadership appears to be divided and has made contradictory remarks about the group’s goals, in particular where they sought to apply shari’ah (in Kidal? In northern Mali? In all of Mali? Across West Africa?). Ag Ghali himself put an end to the ambiguity when he announced the end of a ceasefire in January 2013, and then led an advance of Islamist forces into central Mali on January 10. This in turn prompted the French intervention in Mali the following day.

The Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO, in French) is an AQIM splinter group that publicly appeared in December 2011, when they claimed the kidnapping of three European aid workers in Tindouf, Algeria. Led by the Mauritanian Hamada Ould Kheiru*, an explosives expert, preacher, and longtime GSPC/AQIM member close to Belmokhtar, the group’s stated reason for leaving AQIM was the latter’s purported lack of devotion to jihad and failure to promote non-Algerians to leadership positions.

Ostensibly dedicated to propagating jihad in West Africa, the group’s leadership was originally believed to be largely composed of Mauritanians and Arabs from the Gao region, though recent announcements indicate that the leadership has diversified to include a Saudi, an Egyptian, and a Tunisian, as well as other “foreign fighters”. The group has also reportedly recruited from local populations and some sub-Saharan Africans.

MUJAO, which controls the Malian city of Gao, benefits from a close relationship with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose forces fought with and may have led MUJAO’s successful military attacks against the Tuareg nationalist group the MNLA in Gao in June, and in Ménaka in November. MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Mulathimeen (Battalion of the Veiled Men) seized the infamous smuggling town of In Khalil (sometimes written as al-Khalil) in late December, and are reportedly involved in the current Islamist offensive in central Mali.

One of the MUJAO’s key military leaders, spokesmen, and favorite quote machine for Western journalists, Omar Ould Hamaha, was a commander under Belmokhtar and was identified for a time as the military commander of Ansar al-Din. Hamaha is also, according to some reports, Belmokhtar’s father-in-law.

While rumors abound that MUJAO receives support from local businessmen and known traffickers, in addition to foreign governments, MUJAO has also made an extensive effort to portray itself as a “true” jihadist organization by instituting hudud punishments in and around Gao, conducting attacks against foreign targets, and adopting a media strategy that includes a web forum, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and battalion names recalling past Muslim leaders, famous jihadist figures, and also a local Muslim organization.

Despite its stated focus on West Africa, MUJAO has conducted 4 operations (including two suicide bombings) in Algeria or against Algerian targets, in addition to the kidnapping of 7 Algerian diplomats from the Algerian consulate in the northern Malian city of Gao. MUJAO currently holds 3 of the 7–after releasing three and killing one–and one French-Portuguese hostage kidnapped in November.

* While some sources indicate that Kheiru founded MUJAO in cooperation with other “dissident” AQIM members, this explanation is not universal. For instance, Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali, who published a lengthy analysis in May of the various jihadist groups occupying northern Mali, says that the group was founded by the businessman, smuggler, and AQIM member Sultan Ould Bady, with Kheiru subsequently joining the group. Regardless, both were represented as key leaders of the group until recently, when Ould Bady purportedly left MUJAO to join Ansar al-Din. In December the United States Department of State referred to Kheiru (written as Khairy) as a “founding leader” of MUJAO alongside Ahmed el-Tilemsi, when the State Department designated MUJAO a terrorist organization and applied sanctions to Kheiru and Tilemsi (but no other MUJAO leaders).

When longtime Algerian jihadist and recently-removed AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced in December the creation of a new combat unit, al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those Who Sign with Blood”), much of the media coverage focused on what Belmokhtar said about the new group’s role. As part of Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Moulathimin, the new group would, in his words, attack “those planning the war in northern Mali.” Belmokhtar also said that an eventual intervention in Mali would be “a proxy war on behalf of the Occident.” He also explicitly threatened not only France, but also Algeria, calling the country’s political, military, and economic elites “sons of France” and saying “we will respond with force, we will have our say, we will fight you in your homes and we will attack your interests.”

At the time, few noted Belmokhtar’s important historical reference point in choosing this name for his new faction: the name al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima was originally used by a group of Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) fighters who conducted a series of attacks in Algeria and in France against French targets. Most notable was the Mouwakoune group’s December 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969, an incident that ended when elite French gendarmes stormed the plane on the tarmac in Marseille. While few sources discuss this group in detail, a brief discussion of the attackers and their relationship with the GIA leadership appears on pages 194-196 of al-Hayat journalist Camille Tawil’s book on the GIA, an authoritative source on the group which has never been translated from the original Arabic. (My thanks to Jihadica blogmaster Will McCants for translating and summarizing relevant passages for the purposes of this post.)

Citing the first communiqué issued by the GIA about the incident, Tawil notes that the group called the attack a “response to French support [for the government of Algeria] that has no military, economic, or political justification.” The communiqué further called for France to stop internationalizing the conflict in Algeria, and threatened to blow up the plane if its demands to release a number of prisoners — including GIA and Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) leaders as well as notable Saudi preachers Salman al-Awda and Safar al-Hawali and the Egyptian “blind sheikh” Omar abd al-Rahman — were not met. On page 196, Tawil adds that according to then-GIA emir Djamel Zitouni, the same Mouwakoune group executed four Catholic missionaries in Algeria following the French operation to free the plane.

On the surface it might seem odd that Belmokhtar, one of the GIA’s first leaders to split off and form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in response to the GIA’s brutal tactics and blind attacks on civilians, would so openly reference the GIA Mouwakoune group. But in light of last week’s attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria, two interesting parallels between the two Mouwakoune groups emerge:

  • In both the Air France attack and last week’s assault, hostage taking may have been an ancillary instead of a primary goal. In the Air France hijacking, the attackers quickly killed three hostages to prove their seriousness before demanding the release of the aforementioned prisoners, but it later emerged that their true goal was always to detonate the plane over Paris, possibly in order to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Similarly, though the group that assaulted the In Amenas plant also demanded the end of French attacks in Mali and the release of more than 100 prisoners from Algerian jails as well as jihadi causes-célèbres Aafia Siddiqui and Omar Abd al-Rahman, they reportedly killed a number of hostages outright, forced some hostages to wear explosives and mined the plant. Algerian authorities have said the group’s goal was to destroy the facility, though they may have also hoped to escape with at least some hostages.
  • In both attacks, the stated goal (separate from other possible explanations) was to target one country for supporting war in another. The GIA justified the Air France hijacking and subsequent Paris Metro bombings, not to mention the killing of French citizens in Algeria, as a reaction to France’s support for the Algerian government during the latter’s civil war. Likewise, both the In Amenas attackers and Belmokhtar himself characterized the In Amenas attack as a reaction against Algerian cooperation with France’s intervention last week in Mali.*

Notable also are how the two Mouwakoune attacks differed. Tawil indicates (pp. 257-258) that Zitouni and his successor Antar Zouabri encouraged attacks on the Algerian energy industry as well as those working in that industry. Yet the In Amenas attackers deliberately separated the Algerian workers from the expatriates, reportedly telling Algerian workers that they were not targeted in the assault, and that “we know that you are oppressed, we have come to help you, so that you can have your rights.”

This attitude reflects shifts that have taken place in how jihadist groups and advocates view attacks on Muslim civilians, and the need to avoid targeting them. While many trace this shift to the intensely negative reaction in the Muslim world to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s wanton massacres of Iraqi civilians in 2004 and 2005, this shift can again be traced back to the Algerian civil war, and the disgust generated by the GIA’s even more violent attacks against civilians and widespread declarations of takfir that eventually encompassed all Algerians who were not allied with the group. The failure of the Algerian civil war in turn helped push a number of key figures and theorists, particularly Abu Qatada and Abu Musab al-Suri, away from the GIA. While al-Suri would later become famous for his theories underpinning the “global jihad”, the GIA was, along with al-Qaeda, one of the first proponents of this strategy. In his masterful book about al-Suri, Architect of Global Jihad, Brynjar Lia highlights al-Suri’s claim to have advised then-GIA leader Sherif Gousmi in 1993 to attack France in order to (pp. 155-156):

Deter her and punish her for her war against the GIA and for the French support for the dictatorial military regime [Algeria]. I told them that it would be beneficial to draw France into an openly declared support for the Algerian regime, a support which existed, but only in secrecy. This will unify the Islamic Nation around the jihad in Algeria as it unified the Islamic Nation in Afghanistan against the Soviets. To strike against France is our right. We are at war, and we do not play games, and our enemies should know that.

For the moment, only Mokhtar Belmokhtar knows why he decided to make reference to the GIA’s Mouwakoune in adopting the same name for his new group. Perhaps he was making reference to his renewed desire to attack Algeria, after years of operations in other Sahelian countries. Perhaps he could have been trying to subtly include Algeria and Algeria-focused jihadist groups as part of the global jihad, after years in which AQIM was derided for its focus on the removal of the Algerian government. But what is clear is that the influence of the Algerian civil war, one of the least-studied and least-understood periods in the history of modern jihadist groups, continues to resonate to this day.

 

*The attackers also said they planned the assault two months in advance, in preparation for such an eventual intervention. Algeria had not publicly provided any support for French intervention plans, meaning either that Belmokhtar assumed Algerian cooperation (as described in his December communiqué) or was planning on attacking Algeria regardless.