Perhaps the most important reason mentioned by a lot of people why the United States should not bomb targets in Syria is that the possible downfall of President Bashar al-Asad’s regime may lead to a situation in which jihadis come to power, who may be even worse than the country’s current leader. Such fears are certainly justified. Yet we should also be careful not to exaggerate the threat that these men supposedly represent.  In this post, I look at a specific series of fatwas from the Shari’a Council of the Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad that deals with the problems and questions that potential jihadis have (these, these, these, these and these), which shows that jihadis – their sometimes radical views notwithstanding – can be quite human too.

Refusing parents

Many of the questions that Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, the shaykh who has long been the sole scholar on the Shari’a Council, has to answer deal with questions related to the classical jurisprudence (fiqh) of jihad that go back centuries: “Am I allowed to wage jihad if I am in debt?”, “I am able to do jihad. Does that mean I have to?” etc. One of the questions that also falls into this category is that of parental permission. Quite a few budding jihadis ask whether it is allowed to go to Syria if their parents refuse to let them go. According to the classical laws of Islam, parental permission is needed for someone to wage offensive jihad.

It is obviously easy to make fun of such questions (“I want to kill Nusayris but my mum won’t let me. What should I do?”). I believe this misses the point of why these jihadis ask such questions, however. They seem to be motivated primarily by a great concern for what is going on in Syria – and aren’t we all? – and want to take armed action to stop it, but are afraid they will violate Islamic law at the same time.

Some youngsters admit to lying to their parents about their true intentions when going abroad and wonder whether this is allowed. Others clearly don’t want to go to Syria and mention that their parents won’t permit them either, but apparently feel compelled to ask the shaykh anyway, perhaps hoping that he will excuse them from their jihadi duty. For similar reasons, several questioners ask if it is okay if they just donate money to the jihad, without actually going to Syria themselves. One potential fighter even asks al-Shinqiti to tell him what legitimate excuses exist that allow him to refrain from waging jihad.

Unfortunately for some of these hesitant youngsters, shaykh Abu l-Mundhir points out to them that the jihad against the al-Asad regime is a defensive one, meaning that it is an individual duty (fard ‘ala l-’ayn) for every able-bodied male Muslim. This, in turn, means that parental permission is not needed and that lying to them about this is permitted as well.

Family problems

Although al-Shinqiti comes across as someone whom one would perhaps not easily qualify as “a good family man”, he does take into account that problems at home may excuse one from waging jihad. Several questioners indicate that if they went to Syria, their parents would not be able to cope without them for financial reasons. Others state that their parents are old and need to be cared for, which these men will not be able to do from abroad. Still another questioner tells the shaykh that if he leaves for Syria to wage jihad, he fears his mother will die of grief and pain.

As mentioned, al-Shinqiti is somewhat more understanding of such problems. He encourages people to find others to take care of their parents and their (financial) needs, but also states that if this does not work the jihadis are allowed to stay home. He is less compromising with regard to marital problems – in the broadest sense of the word. One person wants to know if it is a sin to go off to Syria if it means leaving behind a sick child and a wife who is five months pregnant, a question that is posed several times in various forms. Another wants to wage jihad, but also wants to get married. Realising that he desires both, he asks al-Shinqiti what to do. There is even a person complaining that his family in his homeland have abandoned him financially, that he has no education and no job and that he wants to wage jihad, but that his wife starts crying every time the subject comes up.

Al-Shinqiti does not prove particularly helpful with regard to recalcitrant wives (“Try to go to the jihad together with your wife.”), but he does understand that spouses cannot simply be left to their own devices and therefore encourages the questioners to let them stay with their families if possible. He is much more accommodating, however, when it comes to the somewhat related problem of potential fighters wanting to finish their education. Some men point out that they study something that is useful to the jihad and that they themselves will also be of greater use if they are allowed to graduate. Abu l-Mundhir is quite forthcoming in this respect, allowing such youngsters to finish their studies, even if it means putting jihad on hold for the moment.

Attachment

Such expressions of doubt, hesitation and concern by jihadis obviously do not mean that we should dismiss fears about their goals and behaviour. The ideas of some of the men going to Syria are clearly problematic and there is indeed reason to fear sectarian strife and even all-out war between some of the various sects if the al-Asad regime should fall. The ideas about ‘Alawites expressed by some Jihadi-Salafi groups and scholars are quite explicit in this respect and do not bode well for the future.

At the same time, however, the fatwas mentioned above do show that those men wanting to join Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups have plenty of other things on their mind besides jihad. In fact, quite a few fatwas betray their attachment to earthly things such as their families, their wives and children and even their careers. This, in turn – and without wanting to negate the real threat that some of these men may pose, means that they are  perhaps not the wide-eyed extremists hell-bent on world-wide jihad that some believe they are. In fact, they look surprisingly human in these fatwas and none more so than one questioner who asks:

“Is a mujahid who is killed fighting also considered a martyr if he is afraid to die?”

In our earlier post, together with Ali Fisher we detailed and assessed 66 accounts listed by Shumukh al-Islam jihadi Forum member Ahmad ‘Abdallah as ‘important jihadist’ members on twitter. We looked primarily at the users individually, using the data of these 66 accounts to create this infographic to give our readers an overview of these users.

In this post we focus on what we are able to find out about them as a group and provide an interactive network map to show the links between these advocated ‘important jihadist’ twitter accounts.

Relational dynamics

Analysing the relational dynamics between these accounts as a group and those who choose to follow them is a key part of understanding the online strategies of The most important jihadi and support sites for jihad and the mujahideen on Twitter”.

As we identified previously, the accounts had been categorized in different types by Ahmad ‘Abdallah. This underlines the diverse range of information, which was recommended to further the jihadist endeavour in general. In addition to understanding the specific accounts, the data can be used to analyse the network of individuals who follow the 66 ‘important jihadist’ accounts. The relationships are important as they influence the way individuals search for information, what they find and the behaviours they adopt.

We began by identifying the followers of the 66 ‘important jihadist’ accounts. If each of these accounts were followed by a different group of Twitter users, then this would mean that collectively they were reaching 1.8 million users. However, @mujtahidd alone is followed by over 1.1 million followers, and the real number following the remaining important jihadi accounts is much lower than 700,000. This is because some users follow more than one of the ‘important jihadist’ accounts. Using network analysis, we found that the network following one or more of these accounts (excluding @mujtahidd) was 377235 users and 852948 follower/following relationships. The image below represents the network of important accounts and their respective followers. Each Twitter account is represented by a dot, and those with a follower / following relationship are connected by a line.

The graph (above) shows the network of users identified to be following at least one of the ‘important jihadist’ accounts (excluding @mujtahidd). The colours have been used to highlight the groups of users who follow the same users (or same combination of the 66 ‘important jihadist’ accounts). A quick view of the network image reinforces the previous observation that most of the users are following only one or two of these high-profile accounts in the jihadist online media mind-set. The importance of this combined approach is the ability to analyse the combinations of accounts which users have chosen to follow.

For example, this view of the network shows the concentration of user names near the bottom of the image, (highlighted in red) indicating that there are a number of accounts with fewer followers where the overlaps in follower groups are more pronounced. The Jabhat al-Nusra twitter account (discussed in greater detail here) also has a number of followers in common with the cluster of users highlighted.

Focusing on the Network of the 66 ‘important jihadist’ Accounts

In addition to the potential to look at the followers of the 66 accounts claimed to be ‘most important’ by the Shumukh al-Islam posting, their profiles and time zones, the relationships between these specific 66 accounts can also provide analysts with insights. For example, JbhatALnusra, WaleedGaj2002, AsadAljehad2 are most frequently followed by the 66 ‘important jihadist’ accounts. Conversely, SaveArakan4, Mhaajrr, housse_100, and alassra2012 appear on the list of the 66, but few other ‘important jihadist’ accounts follow them.  The ranking (shown below) is based on frequency of being followed by the 66 ‘important’ accounts are also reflected in the eigenvector calculations for the network. The relationships between the 66 accounts are shown in the image below, and be explored in greater detail by clicking on the image, which will open the interactive version. When using the interactive image, clicking on a node will focus on the connections of that user, double click to open the twitter account of that user.

Please note that the interactive image works best in the Chrome Browser.

The network as a whole represents 958 relationships between the 66 ‘important jihadist’ users with a network diameter of 5 (the distance between the furthest two nodes calculated on the directed graph). The network density is 0.2 on the directed graph (1 would represent a complete graph, where all connections would exist).

Key nodes in the network

In our previous post, we emphasized “we are analyzing these accounts that are defined in this [Shumukh al-Islam] posting as most important for jihadi sympathizers, but it does not necessarily mean that the individual Twitter accounts are an integral part of this worldview.” In this follow-up work, however, we, perhaps not surprisingly, found that the majority of the connected accounts are hard core jihadi media activists. From the above listed, we shall have a look at some of the high-profile hard core jihadist Twitter accounts.

As we analysed JbhatALnusra previously (here, here),  let’s have a look at

@WaleedGaj2002

The account has over 45,000 followers while only following 387. Apparently this is the account of “former Guantanamo detainee and eyewitness of the Qila-e-Jangji massacre in Afghanistan” Walid [Muhammad] al-Hajj, from Sudan. According to his latest tweets, he still seems to be on the same page as the mainstream al-Qa’ida jihadis are, appraising Bin Laden and being cherished by other Twitter members for having known the shaykh personally. For further details, here is an interview with al-Jazeera. He was released in 2008. His leaked file is available via The New York Times.

@Strategyaffairs

This is a prolific and quite industrious jihadi media activists with over 100,000 followers and just over a little of 4,000 tweets. He is also active in most classical jihadist forums as ‘Abdallah bin Muhammad. Occasionally he has tweeted statements by the Yemeni AQAP prior to the ‘official’ broadcast within the forums and contextualized as well as posted the statements both within the forums and Twitter. Other Shumukh al-Islam members, for instance, used his Twitter-input to further the AQAP statements within the forum raising @Strategyaffairs status in general (example).

@EYADQUNAIBI

Doctor Iyad Qunaybi is somewhat of a rising star within the radical on- and offline scene. He is active on all social media outlets and his videotaped speeches are also transcribed and published within the jihadist forums. He rose to fame within this subculture in the past year and a half during the troubled times in Egypt and also responded to the jihadi affairs of life in general. By being included on Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s database tawhed.ws, his standing was boosted. Few of his writings and audiobits are available on his author page on tawhed.ws under Iyad al-Qunaybi. His input is valued, re-tweeted and re-disseminated within the forums, on Facebook, and further published on sites such as justpaste.it, see here for example.

@as_ansar

This is the official Twitter account of the bi-lingual Shabakat al-Ansar al-Mujahideen. The main forum is in Arabic and down and out for some time now. The English forum works. With the main forum gone for the while being, this is a good example on how Twitter has become a tangible alternative to the media driven jihadists, for the Twitter accounts remain alive and very active with their over 26,000 followers, untouched by any disruptions of the forums. The YouTube link above is an “invitation to Muslims to visit the forum” and recommends and instructs the use of Tor to conceal one’s identity online.

@Al_nukhba

This account could be described as a jihadi media hub. The members, active on the forums for years, are highly committed and regularly produce transcriptions of jihadist media productions. This is naturally very helpful for any analyst but is also quite a service for the jihadi audience. Usually speeches of main leaders and ideologues as well as major video productions of as-Sahab, al-Malahem etc. are transcribed and can be conveniently downloaded as a PDF or Word document. For a first hand impression on the quantity and quality of this media department’s work, check out their contributions on the Shumukh al-Islam forum here.

On their main website data collections and videos can be downloaded and also searched for. It is a well built and maintained datawarehouse for extremist content that is first and foremost uploaded and disseminated via the classical forums. The Twitter account has about 6,000 followers, over 500 tweets, and is following no one.

This had been one of the pioneer jihadi Twitter accounts and advertised their social media passion as early as 2009. Perhaps the name nukhbat al-I’lami al-jihadi, “the Jihadi Media Elite”, stems from Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s “Message to the British and European Peoples and Governments regarding the Explosions in London”, July 2005, where he outlined the Internet as the most important medium to propagate and spread the jihadists demands and frame of reference in general. He referred to “the jihadi elite” residing in Europe to partake in this venture.

The ‘betweenness’ calculation highlights those users through which the shortest paths across the network most frequently pass. These users are often found near the centre of the network image. From the perspective of ‘betweenness’, in addition to some of the users mentioned above, also appear to have an important role bridging between different elements of the network.

To provide some additional insight in this, here is some basic information on

@Caucasusaffairs

The name of this account is program, everything related to the Caucasus, the Caucasus Emirate (analysis) with the focus on Chechnya is published here in mainly Arabic but also Russian. With over 44,000 followers while following over 400 and about 8,000 tweets this account is a valuable asset besides the main forums and their pertaining subsections. It mainly retweets the Arabic language media outlet “Echo of Caucasus” which is one of the main media hubs in Arabic for many years. You may note the four fingered black hand on the yellow background, a symbol to the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp whereby many pro-Mursi citizens were killed in Egypt recently. For more on this topic, check out the fantastic Closer blog here. The use of this icon in the Chechen context is yet another attempt by the media savvy jihadists to globalize their agenda and serves as proof for the repeated claim of the “war against Islam”. In the meantime this icon has been further ‘jihadised’ by adding the typical black banner, see here for example.

What does this tell us?

The density of the network has two results. First it creates mutually reinforcing clusters of information which can crowd out other perspectives and contribute to the development of a zeitgeist, or a new electronic propaganda frontier, as discussed in relation to activity of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Second, the density of the network tends to protect it against basic disruption strategies, for example the removal or suspension of individual accounts. As Paul Baran’s work On Distributed Communications has demonstrated only a small level of redundancy is required to build a communications systems to withstand heavy enemy attacks. Although this work was done in the context of the 1960s and was particularly focused on challenges faced in the 1970s, the insight provided by the study also relates to online activity and the need for more complex strategies to disrupt dense communication networks.

Recently two videos emerged on Twitter of Denis Cuspert aka Dego Dogg aka Abu Maleeq aka Abu Talha al-Almani who is allegedly shown in Syria as part of a group called Junud al-Sham. Both videos are “trailers” with the promise of full versions to be released soon.

The first video, published on August 14th, is entitled “Abu Talha al-Almani Dokumentation Teaser”. The short clip was published by ShamCenter on YouTube and also disseminated via Twitter. It has been viewed about 180,000 times by August 25. As of August 28 it has over 190,000 views. It was also published with the Turkish title “Deso Dogg Suriye’de muhaliflerin safında Esed’e karşı savaşıyor” (“Deso Dogg fighting on the side of the opposition against al-Assad in Syria”). This had an additional 50,000 views as of August 25th and is up to over 90,000 views as of August 28.

The second video only has about 4,000 views as of 25 August and was also published by ShamCenter via YouTube and Twitter on August 20. This video is entitled “Abu Talha al-Almani Vortrag Trailer”, a preview of a forthcoming sermon for his fellow Mujahideen of the Junud al-Sham. In the description, the audience is reminded that this will be a “brief admonishment by your brother Abu Talha al-Almani.”

Twitter member @almnther posted a picture of Denis Cuspert, showing him before his reversion to Islam and transition as a “Salafist” now turned “jihadist”. The picture on the right shows the former rapper with limited fame after his migration to Syria.

The caption reads:

“He was one of the most famous rap singer in Germany, known as Deso Dogg. He embraced Islam and his name became Abu Malik with his nickname “Abu Talha al-Almani”. He left Germany for today he is [among] the rows of the Mujahideen in Syria.”

The picture on the left is taken from his album “all eyes on me” (sound bite here).

“Malik” was transliterated as “Maleeq”. When searching for “Abu Maleeq” on YouTube within the related SalafiMedia channels, the vast number of his appearances provides interesting insight into the progress of Cuspert’s reversion to Islam and his embrace of radicalism (see here, for example). It should be noted that the jihad music videos are sometimes enriched by pop-cultural aspects, or electronic game elements, such as the latest Call of Duty main theme which had been popular in jihadist circles (see here, other examples: Assassins Creed, Counter Strike, Facebook/CoD). His most recent Jihadi hit, al-Jannah al-Jannah, was published as usual by the Global Islamic Media Front and received some coverage in the German media. According to the article, German authorities warn that Cuspert has previously been involved in burglary, blackmail, armed robbery, assault, and manslaughter. “And today he doesn’t seem to be taking the rigid Islamic lifestyle too serious: investigators grade him as a “consumer of narcotics”, according to an internal LKA document.” As mostly the case, the “al-Jannah al-Jannah” nashid was advertised for on the Arabic and non-Arabic jihadist forums.

In the tweet, @almnther further states:

“to whoever looking at my tweets ((now)); repent to God; go forth to the land of jihad; await the extraordinary; embrace Islam, then go forth [to jihad], then fight. What will you do?”

Sham Center maintains a multilingual website of most likely German dominance where videos and news in general are posted, both from jihadi as well as mainstream media sources. Naturally, Twitter (note the German car sticker in the picture), Facebook, Google+, Skype (shamcenterinfo), email and other contact information is available.

The Twitter account has a mere 90 followers, with the majority consisting of mainly academics, journalists and CT analysts. The tweets replicate a typical jihadi style of content and rhetoric.

The Twitter activity consists of mostly provocative messages directed to German authorities (here) and some basic information on the conquest of parts of the area of the Jabal Akrad and Jabal Durin, as promoted in one of their videos in German, Russian, and Arabic. The claim to be soon advancing on the city of Latakia is repeated (visiting the German Mujahideen, Chechen fighters). The Chechen commander Abu al-Walid Muslim is prominently advertised by ShamCenter and is seen in a video explaining the territorial gains made in Russian (Arabic dubbed version here). Al-Walid has previously been one of the key leaders of the “Liwa’ al-Mujahideen bi ard al-Sham” (Latikia) and received some social media fame for his eulogy of a fellow Chechen explosives expert.

A German and Arabic language video of the attack and conquest of the Jabal Akrad and Durin was published by the Center and most tweets are related to the film (here, here, here).

The two videos

Let’s have a look at the first video, the “documentary about Abu Talha al-Almani”. The clip starts by visualizing his reversion to Islam, smiling into the camera with his “Thug Life” shirt and his movie styled crew before committing – what seems like – some kind of robbery. The title “A Documentary about Abu Talha al-Almani” flashes into the screen, summarized by the statement, “from the darkness, into the light.” This scene is concluded by Cuspert in his make-shift combat fatigue, sitting at a natural water spring splashing with water.

The teaser starts with an Arabic nashid which is then carried on in German by Cuspert smiling and claiming to now reside in the “land of honor” (Boden der Ehre), calling to Jihad in Syria. This is a reference to two German jihad videos of the same title by the Chouka brothers from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The second video with far lesser views is of a more serious nature with Abu Talha being presented as both a real-deal mujahid and an ideologue who will give a lengthier sermon in the forthcoming film. Cuspert allegedly joined up with an unkown group called Junud al-Sham (“The Soldiers of al-Sham”, in short a reference to greater Syria). The video starts with a masked man hushing the audience to be silent, switching to perhaps the same water spring in the first video. It states “in cooperation with Junud ash-Sham, a talk by Abu Talha al-Almani: Holiday Greetings (Urlaubsgrüße)”. The following scene shows Cuspert in a military outfit, armed with a commando version of the AK47 marching in a forest area with an armed troop detail following in line. Most of the men are masked with last guy carrying a small AQ / ISI (or ISIS) flag. The “trailer” concludes with Cuspert sitting and apparently lecturing these Mujahideen who he has just, according to the video, led to this meeting point.

A very brief note on Denis Cuspert, aka Abu Talha al-Almani

Denis Cuspert, born 1975, (Deso Dogg) renounced his former rap-star career in an emotional video some time ago before he then started to rise as a new German-language nashid singer. He chose the name Abu Maleeq and is now known as Abu Talha al-Almani. At least in his hometown Berlin he was a known rapper and has become “somewhat as the first Jihad-Pop Star of Germany” (Schmidt, 2012).

He seemed to have been ideologically guided by his companion and leader, the Austro-Egyptian Mohammed Mahmoud (Steinberg, 2012), who took advantage of Deso Dogg’s musical skills to convey specific ideological notions and sentiments by nashid. A nashid is an a cappella styled Jihad-rhyme that in the meantime is an essential genre on- and offline to convey the content of jihadist ideology (for example here). Such battle-songs became popular during the 1980s but have since gained broader popularity thanks to online dissemination. German nashid, freely available on YouTube, are easy to comprehend, rhythmical, and contain religious Arabic code words. The effect of the ideological content is strengthened and emphasized by pictures or short video sequences. The ambition of Deso Dogg certainly is and had been to be one of the most important German nashid singers. The perhaps most impressive German hymn is “mother remain steadfast” (Mutter bleibe standhaft), recorded by Mounir Chouka, originally from Bonn, who is one of the key German media activists for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He and his brother Yassin produce lots of videos and nashid from their base in the Pakistani Tribal areas (Prucha, 2012).

Deso Doggs appearance in two trailers, claiming to have travelled to Syria and joined the Junud al-Sham is intended to portray him as a mujahid who acts on his words and who now finally has the chance to engage in combat. The question remains for now to what extent he will fight, or even if he will fight at all, and go beyond acting merely as a media-mujahid / singer and preacher for the cameras, splashing around in waterfalls.

 

Al-Qaida Advises the Arab Spring: Al-Maqdisi

Posted: 23rd August 2013 by Joas Wagemakers in democracy, Ideological trends, Jordan

As Cole Bunzel pointed out some time ago, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the famous Jordanian radical Salafi scholar, has published several fatwas and other documents in the last few months. Cole mainly dealt with only two of al-Maqdisi’s recent publications, however, while there are several others he wrote afterwards that are quite interesting as well.

Joining rallies

Several months ago, al-Maqdisi started publishing a series of short documents containing one or more fatwas. It’s not clear who’s asking the questions, but this doesn’t make his answers any less interesting. In the first installment of the series, al-Maqdisi discusses questions that are quite similar to some that his brother in arms Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti also dealt with several years ago, namely whether or not it is allowed to participate in rallies against the regime. Al-Maqdisi’s answer is similar to al-Shinqiti’s – it is allowed – but far more detailed.

Al-Maqdisi states that every period in history has its own methods and weapons to demand people’s rights and that one would be foolish not to make use of these. The period that we are in now – that of the Arab Spring – has shown, al-Maqdisi states, that the regimes in the Arab world fear the masses. In fact, the revolutions that have taken place are based on these massive demonstrations against the regimes, al-Maqdisi maintains.

He further claims that Muslim scholars have stated that every legitimate method that instills fear in the enemies of Islam can and should be used as a means to repell them and wage jihad against them. If mass rallies in which people demand their rights, call for the application of the shari’a, insist on fighting corruption or ask for help for the Syrian people constitute such methods, then Muslims should use them.

Al-Maqdisi subsequently mentions several hadiths to “prove” that Islam allows instilling fear in the hearts of the Muslims’ enemies. Al-Maqdisi would not be al-Maqdisi, however, if he didn’t add that jihadis should try to coordinate such activities and organise them well so that no sinful things will happen and the enemy is not able to drive a wedge between them.

Alliances

The emphasis on unity among Muslims is an issue that al-Maqdisi dwells on further in his answer to the second question of the same document. Asked whether Muslims are allowed to enter alliances with other (non-Salafi) Islamist movements, al-Maqdisi again answers in the affirmative. Interestingly, the questioner draws a parallel with the hilf al-fudul, an alliance between several polytheist Qurashi clans during the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The latter is said to have claimed later in life that, had he been given the chance, he would have joined this alliance. This suggests that the Prophet would not have objected to alliances with polytheists.

The interesting aspect about the hilf al-fudul and Muhammad’s comments on it for our discussion here is that they are sometimes used as prophetic legitimisation of “political” cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islamists have sometimes used this example as a justification of their willingness to engage in the parliamentary politics of secular or less than perfectly Islamic states. Jihadi-Salafis have always rejected the parallels between this example and modern-day politics, which makes al-Maqdisi’s response all the more surprising.

Al-Maqdisi quickly makes clear, however, that such alliances should be forged with Islamic movements – not with “apostate” regimes – and should serve the propagation of Islam (da’wa). Any cooperation, moreover, should be based on piety and, of course, nothing can be done that violates the absolute unity of God (tawhid).

For the same reason, al-Maqdisi also allows people to ask the authorities for permission to set up charitable organisations. As long as Islam is served by it and no Islamic rules are violated in asking for such permission, one should not be like the “zealots” (mutashaddidun) who forbid such requests, simply because they are directed at “apostate” regimes. Al-Maqdisi has long maintained that not all rules in non-Islamic states are necessarily bad or “anti-Islamic” and laws that allow people to do good and pious things through charitable organisations are apparently among the “good” laws.

Organisation

Another question deals with the organisation of jihadis. How does al-Maqdisi feel about organising their affairs by setting up a council (majlis) for every region, with a media spokesperson for all of them? Given al-Maqdisi’s tendency to stress organisation and collective efforts in his writings, he wastes no time in saying that “the true scholars” see this as “one of the most necessary duties”.

Al-Maqdisi stresses, based on several hadiths, that every group, no matter how small, should have a leader and contends that if “the ant and the bee” live in a very organised way, so should human beings. (The more Biblically inclined readers of Jihadica may recognise a touch of Solomon in this remark, by the way, of which a partial Qur’anic parallel can be found in Q. 27: 18-19.)

Palace scholars

A second important treatise that al-Maqdisi published recently deals with a fatwa written by what al-Maqdisi calls “palace scholars” (my rough translation of ‘ulama’ al-sulta). This fatwa was published by the General Fatwa Department in Jordan and seems to be part of a wider effort by Jordanian Muslim scholars to provide so-called “moderate Islam” with theological underpinnings. This process was kicked off by the “Amman Message”, a speech by the Jordanian King ‘Abdallah II on what Islam is all about, delivered in 2004.

Since 2004, King ‘Abdallah II has presided over several meetings with Muslim scholars who denounce radical Islam and provide a more tolerant alternative. As the people who follow me on Twitter know, a major meeting with scholars from all over the world was held just this week in Amman (see here and here, for example). Al-Maqdisi has explicitly denounced the Amman Message in a separate treatise. Although neither is explicitly linked to the Arab Spring, they were published this year and deal with issues that are quite relevant for the post-revolutionary phase that several Arab countries are in right now.

Al-Maqdisi believes that Islam is complete and perfect the way it is and that any additions to it, for example in the form of the Amman Message, are entirely unnecessary and even sinful. Moreover, the brotherhood and tolerance that is spoken of in the Amman Message should, in al-Maqdisi’s view, not be extended to non-Muslims but should strictly apply to Muslims only. There is, furthermore, no equality between Muslims and adherents to other religions. Such talk, al-Maqdisi claims, deviates from the shari’a and should have no place in Islam.

The type of scholars who support these messages are also responsible for the fatwa of the General Fatwa Department mentioned earlier. They claim that elections are legitimate and Islamic means to choose representatives in parliament that even the companions of the Prophet Muhammad used. Al-Maqdisi disagrees with this, of course, since he believes that democracy gives people the power t0 legislate, which is a right that belongs only to God. Democracy therefore infringes on God’s sole right to be sovereign in every sphere of life, which in turn violates his absolute unity. This is polytheism (shirk), which cannot be forgiven.

Shura and ‘Urafa’

He further contests the scholars’ use of shura (consultation), which many Islamists see as an Islamic form of democracy since the idea behind it is to ask people for advice before taking a decision. Al-Maqdisi claims, however, that shura only means consultation in areas in which the shari’a is not clear; whenever there is a clear rule, this should simply be followed. Thus, al-Maqdisi claims, shura is consultation within the bounds of the shari’a, while democracy is people power within the limits of a secular constitution.

Al-Maqdisi further objects to the scholars’ use of the term ‘arif (pl. ‘urafa’) to describe members of parliament (MPs). ‘Urafa’ in early Islam were civil or military leaders recognised by Muhammad. By equating MPs with these ‘urafa’, the scholars seem to legitimise the former on Islamic grounds. Al-Maqdisi dismisses this comparison, however, since MPs are engaged in creating “un-Islamic” legislation, while ‘urafa’ were not. If MPs were truly ‘urafa’, they would refrain from making “man-made laws”, al-Maqdisi maintains. The job of MP, in short, is kufr (unbelief), although al-Maqdisi explicitly denies calling every voter an unbeliever.

While the Arab Spring has brought new challenges and new opportunities, al-Maqdisi thus sticks to his old ideas. He is willing to adopt new measures in the new circumstances that the Arab Spring has brought about, but still rejects democracy in every form. Although it is unlikely to change his mind, it would be interesting to see if al-Maqdisi could keep up this attitude if real democracy were ever to take root in countries such as Egypt and Syria. With the situation being as it is now, however, it seems unlikely that al-Maqdisi will ever see that day.

In this part of our series for Jihadica on the Jihadi Twitter phenomenon, Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha take a closer look at 66 Twitter accounts recommended by a Jihadi online forum user.

To be clear, we are analyzing these accounts that are defined in this posting as most important for jihadi sympathizers, but it does not necessarily mean that the individual Twitter accounts are an integral part of this worldview.

A posting on the Shumukh al-Islam forum recently provided a “Twitter Guide” (dalil Twitter). This ‘guide’ outlined reasons for using Twitter as an important arena of the electronic ribat; identified the different types of accounts which users could follow; and highlighted 66 users which Ahmad ‘Abdallah termed The most important jihadi and support sites for jihad and the mujahideen on Twitter”.

We mentioned this guide in our first post kicking off the series on Jihadica. In this post we intend to clarify the meaning of Ahmad ‘Abdallah’s Twitter guide, published at end of February 2013 on Shumukh al-Islam. We will then analyse the data on the twitter accounts which he claimed to be the most important within the overall jihadi context. An overview of this data is also available in our infographic, 66 Important Jihadis on Twitter (click here or the image for the full size):

In both this post and the infographic we have used ‘Jihadi Accounts on Twitter’ as shorthand for those named in the unwieldy ‘the most important jihadi and support sites for jihad and the mujahideen on Twitter’. It is not the intention of this post to discuss whether, or not, the 66 users should be considered jihadis, but to identify the accounts recommended in the guide to using Twitter in the jihadist context, recommend in the forum thread.

Twitter as the “electronic ribat”

Twitter, for Ahmad ‘Abdallah, has an important role as an electronic ribat. Following a classical rhetoric and it’s comprising meaning, Ahmad ‘Abdallah terms “Twitter one of the arenas of the electronic ribat, and not less important than Facebook. Rather, it will be of much greater importance as accounts are rarely deleted and its easier to get signed up”, without providing a phone number as ‘Abdallah writes. The advantage is that you can follow anyone without having to be accepted as a friend as on Facebook, but “you will see all of their postings just as on Facebook.”

A note on the term ribat in contemporary jihadist mindset

To translate and conceptualise the Arabic term ribat can be very contentious. The term is frequently referred to in both jihadist videos and in print literature in the context of religiously permissible warfare; in a modern meaning it could loosely be translated as “front”.

Ribat is prominent due to its reference in the 60th verse of the eight chapter of the Qur’an, the “Surat Al-anfal” (“the Spoils of War”). It is often used to legitimise acts of war and among others found in bomb making handbooks or as part of purported theological justification in relation to suicide operations. Extremist Islamists consider the clause as a divine command stipulating military preparation to wage jihad as part of a broader understanding of “religious service” on the “path of God.”

Ribat as it appears in the Qur’an is referenced in the context of “steeds of war” (ribat al-khayl) that must be kept ready at all times for war and hence remain “tied”, mostly in the Islamic world’s border regions or contested areas. In order to “strike terror into [the hearts of] the enemies of Allah” (Ahmed Ali), or “to frighten off [these] enemies of God” (see below), these “steeds of war” are to be unleashed for military purposes and mounted (murabit – also a sense of being garrisoned) by the mujahidin.

The relevant part reads, according to the translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem:

“Prepare against them whatever forces you [believers] can muster, including warhorses, to frighten off [these] enemies of God and of yours, and warn others unknown to you but known to God. Whatever you give in God’s cause will be repaid to you in full, and you ill not be wronged.” (8:60).

Ribat has two main aspects in contemporary jihadist thinking. First, the complete 60th verse of the Qur’an is often stated in introductions to various ideological and military handbooks or videos. While some videos issue ribat in connection with various weapons and the alleged divine command to “strike terror into the hearts of the enemies.”

In the past years, the ribat has migrated and expanded into the virtual “front”, as the murabit who is partaking in the media work has been equated with the actual mujahid fighting at the frontlines.

Types of account important for jihad and the mujahideen on Twitter

As the Twitter ‘guide’ states;

“Today I have summarized for you all of the renowned accounts in support of jihad and the mujahideen that convey their news or are in their favour; some are official accounts [by jihadi groups or brigades], some of which are accounts by scholars, ideologues, and supporters. We ask you for your support, even if just by following them.” In general, Ahmad ‘Abdallah lists five different types:

-        “Accounts by Media and News Foundations” referring to all Twitter accounts maintained by the official jihadi media outlets such as Fursan al-Balagh li-l i’lam (@fursanalbalaagh) or the Ansar al-Mujahideen Forum (@as_ansar).

-        “Accounts by Scholars and Writers” meaning stars such as the London-based Hani al-Siba’i (@hanisibu) or Muhammad al-Zawahiri (@M7mmd_Alzwahiri) or the notorious Abu Sa’d al-‘Amili (@al3aamili), to list a few.

-        “Accounts by members of jihadist forums and brothers and sisters supporting the mujahideen.” This is a good example of ‘hybrid’ users, active inside the jihadi forums and social media. These accounts operate independent of the forums and remain active even when the forums are down – this means that there is no gap and no disruption of jihadi content being disseminated when the forums should be down or out.

-        “Accounts supporting the mujahideen in Syria (al-Sham al-‘izz wa-l-jihad)”. This includes media activists in support of prisoners (@alassra2012) and campaigns by the Ansar al-Sham (@7_m_l_t) a charity regularly requesting money and support (financial, logistical, personnel) in general.

-        “Various accounts”, this section includes activists such as the “unofficial account of Minbar al-Tawhed wa-l-Jihad” (@MinbarTawhed); Israeli Affairs (@IsraeliAffairs); or the high profile account Mujhtahid, “the divulging secrets of the Al Salul” an insulting reference to the ruling Saudi family (@mujtahidd).

The posting is concluded with the signature “Abu ‘Abdallah al-Baghdadi” and his own twitter account (@Ahmed_Abidullah).

“The most important jihadi and support sites for jihad and the mujahideen on Twitter”

We took the profile data for the 66 accounts listed by Ahmad ‘Abdallah to discover who these important users are individually and what we could find out about them as a group. One of the first elements in the data users tend to look at is the number of followers an account has. While not a measure of influence, it does give an indication that users have heard of the account and that they may be interested in seeing more of their content.

Of the important jihadi, identified by Ahmad ‘Abdallah, @mujtahidd – has over a million followers, but this an exception, next most followed are @IsraeliAffairs – around 180,000 followers – and @1400year – around 30,000 followers.

Who are these users?

 

Mujtahid is an Islamic term of jurisprudence, a “legist formulating independent decisions in legal or theological matters, based on the interpretation and application of the four usul”, according to Hans Wehr. It can also simply mean “industrious, diligent.”

His bio on Twitter merely consists of two Arabic names, Harith and Hummam, and his email (mujtahidmail@gmail.com). The two names also serve as a code relating to the saying of prophet Muhammad who stated these two names as of the most dear ones to God and to him (besides ‘Abdallah and ‘Abd al-Rahman). Hummam means lion and Harith cultivator. As location he simply entered: The world.

Some Twitter members claim that @mujtahidd is a “known whistleblower inside the #Saudi government”.

 

@IsraeliAffairs – has about 180,000 followers and is the next most followed account,

in his bio, he writes:

“I am Muslim, my citizenship is Arab, I work on behalf of my country which is every span of hand on earth; raising on it the Adhan [the call to prayer]!  [I am] diplomat, translator, researcher in Israeli affairs…”

@1400year – has about 85,000 followers, the third most followed account.

The Arabic name of this account is gharib fi wadanihi – “the stranger in his own country”; the sentiment of gharib is a reference to a mental passageway as the ‘true’ believer considers himself somewhat as a foreign object in this world, associating oneself to the early Muslims who had been perceived as such strangers in their historical context by their social environment. Stranger or estranged is used here in the context of Palestine and the Israeli occupation.

When the data was captured for this post his bio stated:

“The man in the picture is Rachid Nekkaz, a French millionaire of Algerian origin, who opposes France’s ban of the niqab. He said to the Muslimat of France to wear the niqab and I will pay the fine, I am honored by placing his picture [on my account].”

His updated bio, however, as shown in the screen grab above, states:

“The demise of Israel may be preceded by the demise of [Arab] regimes that made a living on the expense of their own people, laughing at them, destroying the societies (…).”

@1400year also has a YouTube account with 1,830 subscribers and 437,243 views. The links across platforms allows users to more effectively create their zeitgeist. This is similar to the way jihadist groups such as Jabhat-al-Nusra are using Twitter to disseminate links to video content shot on the battlefield in Syria and posted for mass consumption on YouTube, as we outlined in an article for the CTC Sentinel recently.

Of the remaining accounts, 32 of the 66 accounts listed have between 5,000 and 100,000 followers (click to enlarge):

The mean number of followers is 28,220 but this is heavily influenced by the three accounts with the greatest number of followers. The median number of followers is much lower 5377.

What language do they use?

The majority (56%) use Twitter in Arabic with 41% using English and 3% using French. The language of an account was determined from that listed in the twitter profile data.

Where are the accounts located?

Few users write meaningful locations in the ‘location’ field on their Twitter profile, and fewer still enable geotagging of Twitter content. However, a surprisingly high number of people tend to set the clock in their timezone, to either the correct timezone – or to a timezone in which they would like to appear to be.

Casablanca was the most common location account holders used to signify their time zone. It does not mean they are in these specific cities but it does provide an indication of the area of the world with which they associate.

Note on why using time zones can be useful:

In short, humans are creatures of habit, they like the clock to show the time – either where they are or with the location with which they mentally associate. For example, following the 2009 Presidential election in Iran, there was a brief campaign for users to show support for the protesters by changing their location to Tehran, perhaps only to confuse Iranian authorities. This strategy had more than a few problems, as Evgeny Morozov pointed out at the time. One of the more notable issues, which is relevant in this context, is the failure of the less savvy Twitter users to change the time zone as well as the location. Another problem with this strategy was the tendency of slacktivists  to use different tags, such as #helpiranelection, to those used by protesters or ‘digital insiders’ (#GR88, #Neda, #Sohrab), discussed in detail here. (The activities of slacktivists are discussed by Evgeny Morozov here) As a result, interaction on Twitter was predominantly characterised by a series of local conversations rather than a one global debate, an issue discussed in greater detail here.

When did the important jihadi accounts join Twitter?

Although one jihadi account has been active since 2009, many of the important jihadi accounts were created during 2012. This data echoes the shift away from discussion on forums and toward social media, lamented by Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili in his recent essay on the state of global online jihad (discussed here).

The data also shows little tendency for accounts that have been active for a long time to have more followers than those created more recently.

On what day and month did the most important Jihadi accounts for Ahmad ‘Abdallah create twitter accounts? This data indicates Friday, though Thursday and Sunday are not far behind. Equally, accounts were most frequently created in June and December.

Do these accounts all speak to the same followers?

If each of the 66 ‘important jihadi’ accounts were followed by a different group of Twitter users this would mean collectively they were reaching 1.8 million users. However, @mujtahidd alone is followed by over 1.1 million followers, and the real number following the remaining important jihadi accounts is much lower than 700,000.  This is because some users follow more than one ‘important jihadi’ account. Using network analysis, we found that the network following one or more of the important jihadi accounts (excluding @mujtahidd) was a little over 370,000 users and 850,000 follower/following relationships.

As one may expect from an online social environment, many users follow one or two accounts, while a very few follow many of the ‘important jihadi’ accounts. The graph below demonstrates a close approximation of a ‘power law’ curve (this discussion hints at why power law / logarithmically normal distribution might be a useful way to approximate user ranking).

Of those users who follow on of the 66 important jihadi accounts (minus @mujtahidd), 34% follow more than one important jihadi account. However, of the users which follow more than one important jihadi account, 45% only follow two accounts. These can be thought of as casual followers.

At the other end of the scale there are 109 users who follow fifty or more of the important jihadi listed and 504 users that follow 40 or more. These are the more engaged followers.

Engaged followers of ‘important jihadi’ accounts

Knowing that a user is particularly engaged in following the same accounts as were deemed important in the Twitter guide, does not necessarily indicate any political affiliation – not least because of the number of CT scholars actively following these accounts (and perhaps some of those using Quito / Hawaii as a time zone).

It is however, instructive to consider the aggregated traits of the group as a whole, for example, of the 504 users who follow forty or more important jihadi accounts, what language do they use?

Unsurprisingly given the dominant languages used by important jihadi accounts, Arabic, English and French are the most frequently used languages. In addition, there are a small number of users who use Twitter in other languages, Indonesian, Spanish, Dutch and German.

From the aggregated profile data, a similar question can be asked about where in the world these engaged users appear to be.

Using the location users have designated to set time on their twitter account, the cultural importance of appearing (at least) in the Arabian Peninsula. Similar to the data on the 66 ‘important jihadi’ the engaged followers tend to have most frequently created accounts in 2012, equally, apart from a small number of exceptions, these users each have a small number of followers.

What does this tell us?

The ‘important jihadi’ accounts, as one may expect, tend to tweet in Arabic. They are followed by a network of around 300,000 people (if @mujtahidd is excluded) most of whom are casual observers.

There are, however, somewhere between 500 and 1000 more engaged followers. These users tend to be Arabic speaking, have created accounts in the last year to 18 months, have relatively few followers and appear to have a greater tendency to identify with the Arab peninsular than the 66 ‘important jihadi’ accounts.

In a follow-up post we’ll look at the network of the 66 ‘important jihadi’ accounts to see if there are groups within the 66 which tend to follow each other. This may reveal a relatively dense network indicating a high degree of mutual awareness within the network. On the other hand, it may reveal a sparse network, which could indicate a low awareness of each other, a decision not to follow other users on twitter – reflecting a use of twitter as a ‘broadcast’ mechanism, or that while the Twitter guide indicated the account as important within the jihadi context, the user actually has other interests, affiliations or tendency to establish follower relationships with users outside what Ahmad ‘Abdallah thought of as the jihadi context.

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.

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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.

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