With the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Caliph Ibrahim, seeking to displace al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri as the leader of the global jihadi movement, a parallel displacement effort is taking place in the more recondite realm of jihadi ideology. The old guard of jihadi intellectuals—Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, and Hani al-Siba‘i, among others—has come out unanimously against the Islamic State and its caliphal pretensions, denouncing the “organization” as hopelessly extremist and out of touch with reality. Their reproach has left a younger generation of pro-Islamic State jihadis no choice but to take up their mantle. One in particular, decrying his jihadi elders and their fierce opposition to his beloved caliphate, appears to be peerless in this effort. He is also the Islamic State’s most prominent and prolific resident scholar, based in Syria since at least February 2014.

Known previously to Jihadica readers by his pseudonym, Abu Humam al-Athari, this young ideologue from Bahrain now uses his given name, Turki al-Bin‘ali (@turky_albinali), or kunya, Abu Sufyan al-Sulami.

The Caliph’s cause

While few outside jihadi circles have probably heard of the young Turki al-Bin‘ali, the twenty-nine-year old Bahraini has played the role of ideological lodestar for the Islamic State since at least 2013. In April of last year, for instance, when Baghdadi announced the expansion of his emirate to Syria, it was Bin‘ali who penned the first monograph in support of his move. Entitled “Extend Your Hands to Give Bay‘a [loyalty] to Baghdadi,” it called on all Muslims in the vicinity of the Islamic State to pledge loyalty to its emir. Moreover, the work anticipated Baghdadi’s caliphate in no uncertain terms: “We ask God for the day to come when we will see our shaykh seated upon the throne of the caliphate!” In addition, Bin‘ali’s biography of Baghdadi, included in this tract, is the most frequently cited by jihadis; already in July of last year he had detailed the future caliph’s lineage going back to the Prophet Muhammad, establishing the crucial caliphal qualification of descent from the Prophet’s tribe.

More recently, at the end of April 2014, Bin‘ali authored another essay portending the Islamic State’s caliphate announcement of June 29, 2014 (Ramadan 1, 1435). In this work, on the permissibility of declaring the caliphate before the achievement of full political capability (al-tamkin al-kamil), Bin‘ali set forth the very legal arguments and scriptural evidence that the Islamic State’s official spokesman would use in his Ramadan announcement—most importantly, the gloss of Q. 24:55 by the Andalusian scholar Abu ‘Abdallah al-Qurtubi (d. 1275). Bin‘ali had identified the Islamic State as “the kernel of the anticipated, rightly guided caliphate.” “Doubtless,” he wrote, “the caliphate requires some measure of power, might, and political capability, and this is present in the Islamic State.” Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Bin‘ali’s former teacher, claims to have remarked upon hearing the title of his pupil’s work: “The announcement declaring their organization the caliphate must be imminent.”

From Bahrain, with jihad

According to a short biography written by one of his students, Turki ibn Mubarak al-Bin‘ali was born in September 1984 in Bahrain, where he began his religious education at an early age. At some point he moved to Dubai for higher education in Islamic studies, but was arrested and deported for jihadi inclinations. Thereafter he studied in Beirut and again in Bahrain. The biography mentions numerous other detentions, both within and without Bahrain, and the fact that the shaykh has been banned from the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, and others.

The greater part of the work aims to inscribe Bin‘ali within the larger Salafi and smaller Jihadi-Salafi networks, detailing his studies with both quietest scholars like the Saudi ‘Abdallah ibn Jibrin (d. 2009) and Syrian Zuhayr al-Shawish (d. 2013) and jihadis like the Palestinian-Jordanian al-Maqdisi and Moroccan ‘Umar al-Haddushi. A whole other biography is dedicated solely to detailing these scholarly connections.

The most celebrated of these is by far Bin‘ali’s link with al-Maqdisi, the biggest-name jihadi scholar alive. While the details of their relationship are not given, the two scholars’ writings bear witness to what was once a profound mutual affinity and extensive collaboration. Bin‘ali has several books in defense and praise of al-Maqdisi, while the latter has returned the favor by certifying his student’s religious knowledge. Al-Maqdisi provided Bin‘ali with a general ijaza authorizing him to teach all of his works. As he wrote in 2009 in the introduction to one of Bin‘ali’s books, “I provided him with an ijaza to teach all of my books when I saw in him extraordinary passion and support for the religion, for God’s unity (tawhid), for jihad, and for the mujahidin. Such passion as this ought not to be met but with backing and support and encouragement. If a shaykh has the right to take pride in any of his students, I am proud of this beloved brother.” In terms of collaboration, when al-Maqdisi set up a Shari ‘a Council on his website in fall 2009, he appointed Bin‘ali one of its muftis. And according to Bin‘ali’s own testimony, al-Maqdisi made him his successor at the council’s helm, presumably when al-Maqdisi was in prison.

In most of his writings for al-Maqdisi’s website Bin‘ali has used the name Abu Human Bakr ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Athari. Only in April 2014 did he finally clarify the matter of his pseudonym, noting that he has used several others as well (including Abu Hudhayfa al-Bahrayni and Abu Hazm al-Salafi), all with the intention of hiding his true identity from the “tyrants and oppressors” of Arab states. As the Islamic State has gathered strength, Bin‘ali has dispensed with the aliases. According to press reports, he arrived in Syria in late February 2014, though he may have been living there even earlier.

In April Bin‘ali wrote that the Bahraini government was threatening to withdraw the citizenship of all Bahraini citizens fighting in Syria unless they return home within two weeks. His response was to compose a poem disparaging the very notion of citizenship, and vowing to stay on in the Islamic State. “Is it reasonable,” he asked, “that we would return, having arrived in the Sham of epic battles and warfare?… A land wherein the rule is Islam is my home; there is my dwelling and there do I belong.”

The Refuter

Bin‘ali’s signature public role for the Islamic State has been to refute its many enemies, his refutations being the most wide-ranging and most publicized of any Islamic State shar‘i (shari‘a specialist). The sharpening of the pen began in December of last year, just before the January 2014 uprising against the Islamic State in northern Syria led by fellow Islamist groups angry at its refusal to submit disputes to third-party arbitration. The accusation—which seems to have been fair—inspired a number of key Islamist and jihadi thinkers to incite their followers against the Islamic State, on the grounds that it refused to submit to God’s law. Bin‘ali, leading the charge against this allegation, argued that the Islamic State was a sovereign polity with courts and a legal system sufficient for such matters.

Between December 2013 and March 2014, Bin‘ali took aim at fellow jihadi ideologues like the Jordanian Iyad Qunaybi and Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi, at Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, and at more mainstream Islamists like the Saudi-based ‘Adnan al-‘Ar‘ur and a member of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council. In the period April-June 2014 he put even larger targets in his crosshairs, refuting al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the two biggest-name jihadi ideologues, al-Maqdisi and the Palestinian Abu Qatada al-Filastini. It is his refutation of al-Maqdisi that is most significant.

Issued June 7 and entitled “My Former Shaykh,” this refutation is Bin‘ali’s last in a busy six-month period. It came in response to a long document published on al-Maqdisi’s website on May 26 detailing the many efforts of the senior shaykh to mediate between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Maqdisi’s plan was to sponsor a reconciliation initiative that would involve a third-party arbiter, much like other initiatives being proposed by different shaykhs at the time. Bin‘ali acted as his intermediary with the Islamic State leadership, whom al-Maqdisi threatened with dire consequences should they fail to participate.

In the event, his message to the Islamic State went unheeded, and so the shaykh did as threatened. His statement on “the obligatory position” to be adopted toward the Islamic State was harsh, describing it as “deviating from the path of divine truth, being unjust to the mujahidin, following the road of extremism…refusing arbitration, declining reform, [and] disobeying the commands of its senior leaders and shaykhs.” This last comment concerns the Islamic State’s disputed status as a former al-Qaeda affiliate. In the document, al-Maqdisi follows al-Zawahiri in claiming that it was indeed an affiliate and thus obligated to obey its leaders’ commands.

What really piqued Bin‘ali was the insulting approach his former teacher had suddenly adopted toward him. Al-Maqdisi had included in this document long excerpts from emails between himself, Bin’ali, and the administrator of the website, and thrown occasional grammatical errors into Bin‘ali’s excerpted writing. In his discussion of the correspondence al-Maqdisi had furthermore referred disparagingly to his Bahraini pupil as the Islamic State’s “most vaunted mufti” or “most vaunted shar‘i.”

The content of Bin‘ali’s response is not worth examining in great detail. The main points of contention are the Islamic State’s stubbornness in refusing arbitration—which they both acknowledge—and its alleged insubordination against al-Qaeda—which they do not agree on. What is noteworthy is Bin‘ali’s authorship of such a refutation to begin with.

Rejecting seniority

In another statement from early May 2014, al-Maqdisi had written critically of younger jihadi shaykhs dismissing their elders, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Qatada al-Filastini. “Take heed of seniority,” he warned his juniors, accusing them of “wanting to stand upon the shoulders of our best and brightest and then discredit their intellects.” Indeed, just days before this statement was issued, Bin‘ali had written that age was a likely cause of Abu Qatada’s “confusion” surrounding the Islamic State.

Bin‘ali’s refutation of “my former shaykh” (shaykhi ‘l-asbaq) is in its very title a rejection of the idea of “seniority” (asbaqiyya). It represents the assured spirit of a younger generation of jihadis ready and willing to break with an established cadre of jihadi intellectuals and carve their own path. It also represents the assured spirit of Bin‘ali himself, who for years has disputed the notion that he is too young to be a religious authority. Visited in prison some six years ago in Bahrain by a Saudi religious official, who was shocked that a twenty-three-year old was issuing religious opinions, Bin‘ali retorted with an essay on the inadmissibility of age restrictions on such practice in Islam.

Whether Bin‘ali can succeed in leading this younger generation of pro-Islamic State jihadi thinkers is yet to be seen. For the moment he remains the closest thing that the caliphate has, after the caliph himself, to a big-name religious authority.

The Verdict of Abu Qatada al-Filastini

Posted: 26th June 2014 by Joas Wagemakers in Jordan, terrorism, Terrorism trials

Well, the moment has finally come: after years of legal wrangling in Britain and a lengthy trial in Jordan, Abu Qatada al-Filastini has heard his verdict against him at the State Security Court in Amman at last. Abu Qatada has been the subject of several publications in the past few years (see here, for example, and for context of his stay in “Londonistan”, see also here) and a new chapter of his life has presumably just begun, although we’ll have to wait till September to be sure. I have closely followed the case against him in Jordan, both through media reports and through having been present at his trial in Amman several times and this post is an account of that trial and the final verdict.


Abu Qatada was obviously notorious as a scholar for North African radical groups long before he ever went to Jordan, but it was his deportation to that country that set in motion the trial that so many had waited for for so long. The reasons Abu Qatada was perceived as being such a nuisance to the British taxpayer was that he was not allowed (and allegedly even unable, because of back pains) to work because he had to stay inside for almost the entire day for security reasons, only being allowed outside with an ankle bracelet to make sure he didn’t get away. At the same time, however, he was made to live in a taxpayer-funded 800,000 pound home in London’s West End. I distinctly remember British tabloids writing about this at the time as a national disgrace, particularly given Abu Qatada’s views about Britain and its policies. The problem was, however, that there were fears that Abu Qatada might be tortured in Jordan and, as such, Britain could not legally send him back there. In the end, Abu Qatada, probably sick and tired of the whole procedure himself, agreed to make a deal with Britain and willingly go to Jordan. The deal entailed his receiving a fair trial and not having evidence extracted by means of torture used against him.

Once in Jordan, Abu Qatada was accused of two things, namely of having been a member of the Jordanian group Jama’at al-Islah wa-l-Tahaddi, which is said to have been involved in plans to commit terrorists attacks (including an attack against the American School in Amman), and for his alleged involvement in the so-called “Millennium Plot”, a plan to commit attacks against tourists celebrating the new millennium in Jordan. He was sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment) for the first charge and to 15 years in prison for the second in absentia in, respectively, 1999 and 2000, so long before he came back to Jordan last year. Since there had never been a real court case against him during which he had been able to defend himself, this was supposed to happen now.

Court case

As much trouble as the British government had to bring an end (at least as far as Britain was concerned) to the whole Abu Qatada saga, it was really just a prelude to what was to come during the actual court case in Jordan. Unlike in Britain, Abu Qatada had to spend his time in Jordan in gaol. Apart from being denied bail, which his lawyer Taysir Dhiyab protest against, the latter also claimed that Abu Qatada suffered from various other restrictions. He is said to have had only limited access to his family and had to wear the same prison clothes that others wore too. His lawyer argued that for Abu Qatada, being a religious man, this was against his beliefs. The whole episode of Abu Qatada’s clothing took on a slightly comical turn when the discussion focussed on whether or not he had to wear certain underpants, which apparently became subject to legal dispute too. Meanwhile, Abu Qatada’s son Qatada, who’s the spitting image of his father, started attracting attention, too.

On a more serious note, Abu Qatada’s lawyers protested against the fact that there was a military judge present during the trial, which he claimed violated the terms of the deal he had made with Britain. The court thereafter suspended two sessions for this reason and eventually decided to give Abu Qatada a civilian trial, supposedly in accordance with the Jordanian constitution. Other issues surrounding this case included hunger strikes by other Jihadi-Salafi prisoners, in which Abu Qatada is said to have participated to protest against the treatment prisoners were getting, the occasional delays in the court proceedings (including one requested by the defence to have documents in favour of Abu Qatada translated into Arabic) and the withdrawal of one of Abu Qatada’s lawyers and the search for another. At one point last month, there was even talk of trading Abu Qatada for the kidnapped Jordanian ambassador to Libya, but this never happened.

The court sessions themselves were quite chaotic too. Witness after witness was brought in to testify against Abu Qatada, but none of them actually did. Many of them gave long stories about themselves, which were subsequently recorded not by a stenographer but by a regular typist (after being repeated word for word by the judge). This meant not only that one heard every testimony twice, but it sometimes also led to the hilarious situation of the typist not understanding a certain word, with the judges occasionally all getting involved in a discussion of what exactly the witness had said.  More importantly, few (if any) of the witnesses actually touched upon the cases that Abu Qatada was being tried for. In fact, whenever the witnesses were asked whether they knew Abu Qatada personally, they invariably answered “no”. According to observers I talked to at the trial, the prosecution was apparently trying to build a very general case against terrorism and radical Muslims and tried to fit Abu Qatada in there somewhere.

The court sessions were seldom boring, however. It was interesting to see Abu Qatada getting involved in his case by shouting that the trial wasn’t fair, that it violated the terms of the British-Jordanian agreement about him and that, as such, he didn’t recognise the court. His lawyer would often try to calm him down, realising that such talk – justified or not – would hardly do his case any good. Most interesting to me personally, however, were the breaks in between the two halves of every session, when journalists would flock to the large cage that Abu Qatada had to sit in and write down every word he said about the trial and particularly the situation in Syria. As Cole Bunzel has written (see here), Abu Qatada not only wrote about this subject from prison, but also frequently used his day in court as a pulpit from which to denounce ISIS, as other radical scholars have done too.

The verdict

The actual verdict today, which I attended, was preceded by a lengthy point-by-point account of the whole history of the case by the main judge at the trial. He told so much about the different people involved, the books that Abu Qatada had written and everything else, that it seemed as if he was building up to a “guilty” verdict. As it turned out, however, Abu Qatada was acquitted of the case revolving around the Jama’at al-Islah wa-l-Tahaddi and the verdict on the Millennium Plot will be given in September. This was not completely satisfactory for the defence, perhaps, but Abu Qatada’s family were overjoyed and the man himself had a distinct grin on his face too.

The response of the journalists and other people present at the case was predictable: all of them immediately wanted to talk to Abu Qatada and there was quite a lot of chaos for a few minutes. After a short while, however, all of us were led out of the court room and one of Abu Qatada’s lawyers stated to the press that he was quite happy with, as he put it, the just decision that had been taken by the court and he hoped for similar justice in September, when the verdict for the second case is expected. So Abu Qatada remained in prison for the moment, but he may have something to look forward to for now.

Three new books

Posted: 18th June 2014 by Joas Wagemakers in Uncategorized, Western Analysts, Western books

As readers of Jihadica know quite well, jihad – the core subject of this weblog – is quite different from Salafism and even from terrorism, although they are, sadly, all too often equated. This does not mean, however, that studies on any of these three subjects may not benefit students of one of the others. With this is mind, Jihadica readers may be interested to know that three books that I have personally been involved in have recently been published. Two of them deal with Salafism and one with terrorism.

Utopian ideals

The first of these books was published in Dutch – sorry about that, but there are bound to be some Dutch readers among you – and was written by two of my colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen (the anthropologist Martijn de Koning and the political scientist Carmen Becker) and myself. The book is called Salafisme: Utopische idealen in een weerbarstige praktijk (“Salafism: Utopian Ideals in a Stubborn Reality”) and was published by Parthenon. The book contextualizes Salafism within discussions on fundamentalism and radicalization, but really tries to show that Salafism is first and foremost a religious trend within Sunni Islam, not the producer of terrorists that some think it is. The book deals with the history of Salafism, its ideology, its presence in the Middle East and Europe, Salafi activities and ritual practices on the internet and Salafism in the Netherlands. The chapters on ideology, the Middle East and the Netherlands obviously also deal with the radical ideas and the violent actions of Jihadi-Salafis, how these developed and how these have been influenced by the Arab Spring.

True Islam

The second book (this one in German) that I would like to draw your attention to was edited by Behnam T. Said and Hazim Fouad – both German scholars of Islam – and is entitled Salafismus: Auf der Suche nach dem wahren Islam (“Salafism: In Search of True Islam”). It was published by Herder and contains – apart from my own chapter on the classification of Salafism and its relation with al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal) – chapters on many different aspects of Salafism, including a discussion on Salafism as a distinct category, its creed, Salafism as a school of law and as a political ideology, its role in several Muslim countries (Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) as well as special attention for Europe in general and Germany in particular. Chapters that Jihadica readers may be extra interested in are those written by Behnam T. Said on Salafism and political violence, the chapter by Aaron Y. Zelin on Jihadi-Salafis in Libya and Tunisia and the one on the concept of ghuraba’ (strangers) by Benno Köpfer.

Terrorist Leaders

Finally, the third book – don’t worry, this one’s in English! – was edited by Kacper Rekawek and Marko Milosevic, two experts on terrorism from, respectively, Poland and Serbia, and is entitled Perseverance of Terrorism: Focus on Leaders. It was published by IOS Press and, as the title suggests, focuses on leadership in terrorist movements. Although my chapter is a bit of an outlier since it focuses on religious authority among leaders in Jordanian quietist Salafi and Jihadi-Salafi networks and does not deal with terrorism at all, the other chapters cover many different aspects of terrorism, including definitional and strategic issues, terrorist links with crime, the question of eliminating terrorist leaders and case studies of movements in Macedonia and the Czech Republic. Chapters touching on or explicitly dealing with jihad in relation to terrorism are Ekaterina Stepanova’s study on “lone wolves” and leaderless jihad, Dario Cristiani’s chapter on the Sahelisation and hybridisation of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib, Ryszard M. Machnikowski’s research on terrorism in the AfPak region and Marko Babić’s chapter on Islamist radicalisation in the Western Balkans.

Although these three books are quite different in style and focus – particularly the last book, of course – I’m sure that Jihadica readers will find much of interest in all three. I’m not aware of any plans for translations of the first two books, but I can tell you that another interesting book on Salafism in English will be published later this year or next year. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter (@JoasWagemakers), you will certainly hear about this. If not, watch this space…

As we outlined in a brief analysis in our first post, Ali Fisher and I will head into a more deeper analysis of our findings regarding the release of “The Clanging of the Swords, part 4”. In the next posting we will discuss and analyse the most important accounts that we will introduce in this part.

We do stress, however, that the reader should keep in mind that one of the key phenoma of jihadi Twitter activism in Syria is that most users engaged online are using mainly mobile platforms. This accounts for people inside Syria as much as outside – the preferred device to interact and Tweets are devices running Android  followed by iPhone, as we had detailed in this graph in the last post. This shows that word of the video on YouTube, and archive.org was spread using a range of different digital technologies, but mainly mobile devices.

The video was also reflected upon on by sympathizers on tumblr, with users in one case posting a picture of the title of the video on a big flat screen while holding a Dutch labelled pop corn bag in front of the camera. This affirms the users claim to be “just one of your beloved brothers from The Netherlands.” Tumblr has become another social media outlet used by Jihadists in the past years. A pioneer short study on this phenomena – “Tumbling along the straight path” – was published by Rüdiger Lohlker, available here.

The effect of jihadi videos in the past years, due to their outreach and the popularity showcasing real men who act and stand up against frames of injustice is thus further highlighted – with the audience trying to actively particpate by the very least of expressing sympathy and spreading the word of the video by all of their means possible – and thus they consider themselves as a media-Mujahid. This is a role model not only sanctioned by senior jihadist ideologues, but also highly approved since the death of bin Laden.

Most Important Users

The information sharing about the video created a network of 6,428 Twitter users and 19,601 edges, some users were mentioned frequently. The graph below shows the frequency prominent users were mentioned.

To extend the analysis of prominent members of the network we created a representation of the network sharing the video via Twitter. It contains 6,428 Twitter users and 19,601 edges. The network had an average path length of 5.7 and a diameter of 15.


From the visual representation it is evident that there are a number of different users that were prominent in different sections of the network. Rather than the majority of the network orbiting one of a few influential accounts, in a series of hub and spoke structures, this network has multiple interconnected hubs through which information flows in multiple directions. This creates a level or redundancy providing the network with a degree of resilience that allows information to continue to flow in the event that some Twitter accounts may be suspended. This is because the interconnected hubs provide a level of redundancy so there are a number of other pathways through which information can flow. As Paul Baran’s calculations showed, distributed communications systems need a relatively low level of redundancy for the majority of the network to maintain communication in the event of major network disruption.

Viewing the network map in greater detail can show which users communicated with each other, which reached the same communities, and which were a bridge to specific communities. For example, in the network representation nodes of the same colour are within the same interconnected community. This means they are more likely to interact with other members of that community than the rest of the network. These can be assessed in greater detail in the online version where connections between specific nodes can be examined.

Through a refinement of the network image, to show only those users who have at least one mutual connection – meaning they have mentioned someone who has also mentioned them, a core group of users becomes visible.

This network of mutual connections contains 165 Twitter accounts (2.5% of the total network) including all of the top twenty five most mentioned users and on average a node in this core group has slightly more than five connections to other accounts in this group. This means the network has a density of 0.031 – meaning 3% of all possible connections exist. This is sufficient to provide the network with a level of resilience.

Resilience in this context is shown by impact on the network of losing important nodes, in the form of account suspensions.

With the loss of the five most connected nodes (ranked by times mentioned by others) every remaining node would still be connected to this network, with only a slight reduction in graph density to 0.027.  Similarly, the removal of the five most important nodes (ranked by Pagerank) leaves the graph density unchanged at 0.031 and again, every remaining node would still be connected to the network.  This means that the current occasional account suspensions are unlikely to have any practical impact on the ability of users to share information.

The identification of key actors in the network can provide greater insight into the way information travelled. For example, this can differentiate between those users that are important for reaching specific communities, from those users that are part of the core of the network. This analysis is important as not all users are influential in the same way. For example some will be influential within the core of the network while others are important as they form a bridge to wider communities.

Position on the scatter plot below is based on two network metrics pagerank and betweenness. Size is the number of times the account was retweeted or mentioned. Nodes with the same colour are in the same statistical community. If you are viewing the online version of this graph, mouse over dots to show each label, controls in the bottom left corner allow the user to zoom in on specific area of the chart.

When viewing the chart:

• Users in the bottom left of the graph tend to have no particular role and can be thought of as general users, although they may have high value to an often small and very specific group.

• Those in the top left of the graph tend to be in the core (or one of the cores) of the network. This indicates they are often those most invested in the network and have access to privileged information.

• Those in the bottom right of the graph fulfil the role of bridging between the core content producers and a specific community. The value of this role often comes from tailoring information to a specific ‘audience’ and as such these users are more valuable to that group but less important to everyone else.

• Users in the top right are rare. They have a dual function, as they have the same trusted status as those in the top left of the graph. They also fulfil the same ‘bridge’ role as users in the bottom right of the graph, reaching areas of the network which others do not.

In the case of the network disseminating information about the release Sas 4 the pagerank scores are particularly low which backs the earlier visual observation that the network is dispersed and has multiple interconnected hubs. The graph shows that @Minbar_s,  @Aahat9, and @kwatem0 were important conduits for the spread of information to communities that other accounts could not reach. Conversely, @furkan_om and @MoTweetry were hubs which were a core part of the information sharing about this video. Most importantly, @ISIS_1111 was the single node that was able to fulfil both core and bridging functions simultaneously, with other accounts such as @AberatAlkarat_5 fulfilling a similar role to a lesser degree.

In addition to the roles users played in the network, the time at which they were influential is also an important aspect of the analysis. This is known as their engagement profile, the extent to which other twitter users engaged with them over a given time period.

Taking the top five most mentioned users in the network the engagement profiles shows that there were two periods of particularly intense activity. It also shows that different accounts were prominent at different times. For example, @wa3tasimu and @turky_albinali were prominent in the first peak but not the second, while @AL3gneg and @Minbar_S were prominent during the second peak.


This analysis demonstrates the need for counter-strategies to be agile as accounts become important at different times during the dissemination of content. In addition, it provides additional context to the key actor graph as @Minbar_s was an important conduit for information to a particular community, and the engagement profile shows that this role was likely to have been fulfilled later in period in which the video was being actively shared.


Interim Conclusions

 ·      Jihadist groups have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of social media and mobile technologies. 

·       The release of 4  صليل الصوارم was announced through a resilient and dispersed network. This network has sufficient interconnection and redundancy to continue to operate indefinitely in spite of the current level of account suspensions.

o   On each platform there are clusters of mutually reinforcing accounts which create a level of resilience that allows jihadists to have a persistent presence on the platform.

·       The release of the 4 صليل الصوارم video highlights the multiplatform zeitgeist which has become a feature of the Jihadist social media phenomenon.

o   Accounts on one social media platform are used to reinforce the content on other social media platforms, creating mutually reinforcing connections across platforms. This means users could turn to Facebook or Google+ if a specific Twitter account is suspended to locate the replacement Twitter account. In reality most jihadists that take the propagation element of their activity seriously have back-up accounts already set up with users following their primary account directed to also follow the back-up in case of an account suspension. 

·       The release of the video on a Saturday may have been a deliberate strategy to pick the day when those employed to challenge or disrupt the propagation of information about the video were least likely to be available. 

This is a network based challenge – identifying groups rather than individual accounts.

The release of the video Salil al-sawarim (SaS) by ISIS’s media department al-Furqan over the weekend demonstrated the sophistication of the jihadist use of social media to disseminate their video content. Al-Furqan’s sister department, al-I’tasimu had announced the release of the fourth instalment of Sas on Twitter on Saturday noon, March 17, 2014. A few hours later, it was published via al-I’tasimu’s high-profile Twitter account and the tier-one jihadist forums. The first three Salil al-sawarim videos had been very popular, high quality edited and showed a mix of extreme obscene violence and ideology at play.

This is the first part of the brief glimpse into the data collected on Twitter revolving around the  #صليل_الصوارم_الرابع Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha explore the data networks and outline in brief terms the ideological bearings at play. For a second post we will provide the readers with a more in depth analysis, outlining the context of this video in the jihadist virtual as well as the greater ideological cluster at play.

In the first twenty four hours after Sas (“The Clanging of the Swords”) was posted on YouTube the was viewed 56,998 times with an average user watching a little over 17 minutes of the hour long film. This means that collectively YouTube users spent the equivalent of 686 days watching this one video. It has subsequently been reposted a number of times on YouTube, and was published on other file sharing sites such as archive.org and links for download were broadcast via justpaste.it. It was published in different sizes and formats. A high-definition format, about one gigabyte in size, carries death and mayhem to the home and portable cinemas worldwide.

As of writing this post, the YouTube video has been viewed 124,704 times with 4,204 likes and 491 dislikes.

Delivering high levels of views in the first day after publication takes coordination across a range of social media channels. This briefing analyses that spread of information, and shows:

  • The volume of tweets about the video release.
  • An estimate of the size of the network which shared word of the video release.
  • The users most frequently mentioned in connection with the video.
  • The key actors in the Twitter network that allowed word of the video release to spread rapidly.
  • The platforms that users utilised to tweet.
  • The prominent languages used to spread word of the video release.


This shows:

  • Jihadist groups have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of social media and mobile technologies.
  • The release of the video on a Saturday may have been a deliberate strategy to pick the day when those employed to challenge or disrupt the propagation of information about the video were least likely to be available.
  • Information is shared through a resilient and dispersed network. This network has sufficient interconnection and redundancy to continue to operate despite the current level of account suspensions.

The video

In short the approximate one-hour long video is a mix of implementing ideological principles and executing framed enemies. The film starts with several ISIS Mujahideen who tear up their Kosovar passports and burn these. A ring leader outlines the principles of the true Islamic state citizenry in fluent Arabic – an element that was just recently broadcast in two al-Furqan videos where several international fighters tore up their passports to declare their identity and belonging to the Islamic State and not to some vassal or Crusader state entity. The opening of the video enforces the connection of Syria and Iraq: ISIS armed car convoys parading in cities such as Homs, Raqqa, switching to Fallujah where a drone, possibly an Parrot AR.Drone iPad controlled remote aircraft, is flown above the convoy, proving the audience with a 360 angle view of the city and the jihadi boots on the ground.

All operations in the video are allegedly in Iraq, in the notorious al-Anbar province, including the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah where the most severe attacks against the U.S. forces at the time occurred. Iraqi governmental officials are sought out at fake checkpoints and executed, off-duty soldiers are hunted down on the streets and killed for reasons varying from being an apostate of Sunni Islam to being a Shiite or of collaborating with the U.S. funded Sunni Sahwa councils at the time. ISIS, by these specific search-and-destroy missions claims to have insider information and conveys to the audience that all assassination operations are meticulously planned and carried out. Part of these cleansing operations include ISIS units searching the private houses of Iraqi governmental soldiers and officers, who often are visibly confused as ISIS dresses up just like legitimate governmental units. The surprised individuals are then tied up and shot, or beheaded, guilty based on TV-reports and uniforms etc. found in their house – a typical modus operandi often seen in this type of video.

Other parts of the video show how the element of repentance (tawba) is enforced on the local Sunni population of al-Anbar. This is a lesson learned that is already at play in Syria: why alienate the local Sunni people when they can be coerced into inclusion, forcing them to repent their former affiliation or sympathies with the local governments. ISIS gathered what appears to be several hundred men to mosques where preachers declare the Mujahideen are fighting for the Sunni people, demanding that those present dissociate themselves from worldly or Shiite rule etc. ISIS seeks to recruit and integrate by killing off individuals framed as responsible for grievances while empowering the ‘former victims’ by granting them forgiveness and a place among them.



Word of the video release spread via Twitter with two distinct peaks in Tweeting. One peak occurred on the day of release (17th May) and a second during the following day (18th May).

Between the 17th May and 8am on the 19th May we observed a total of 32,313 tweets carrying the name of the video. There was an average of 807.825 tweets per hour, the median being 736.5.

Tweets contained a range of #tags in addition to the title of the video, the most common of which are shown below.

The first hash tag on the left is the Arabic reference to Salil_al-sawarim_four, followed by The_Islamic_State_in_Iraq_and al-Sham, and the al-Furqan Media department.

However, while all the prominent tags are in Arabic, not all the tweets were in Arabic. This demonstrates the reach of the video and shows that some multilingual users were proactively translating content allowing users to access the information in a range of languages.

Users were also using a range of different technologies through which to tweet but mobile technologies and particularly phones are dominant. The most common ways users tweeted about the video was an app on an Android mobile phone, (Twitter for Android) followed by an iPhone app, (Twitter for iPhone). The web and tablets are also important but to a lesser extent.

As the graph shows, word of the video on YouTube, and archive.org was spread using a range of different digital technologies, including mobile phones, desktop (web), and via other social media including Facebook. This last case emphasises the importance of understanding the jihadist social media phenomenon as a cross platform zeitgeist, as users were using Facebook to tweet about a video posted on YouTube.

Following the recent airstrikes carried out against a convoy targeting al-Qaeda fighters in remote training camps in southern Yemen, Ali Fisher and Nico Prucha examine  how the tales of drone strikes and civilian suffering claimed to be the result have become a frequent narrative for jihadi statements, videos and on forums. Analyzing the way word of the strikes and announcements of the martyrs spread via Twitter we find that jihadist groups are using the impact of drone strikes to strengthen the cohesion of remaining fighters, celebrate the martyrs, and attempt to derive sympathy from a wider audience.

While the conversation, denoted by the Arabic hash tag for “martyrs of the American strike in Yemen” #شهداء_القصف_الأمريكي_باليمن)) was short-lived and quickly reached its peak when the majority of the martyrs had been announced. However, we also find that while a division between pro-ISIS and pro-AQ users can be identified, there is a shared positive opinion on AQAP and drone strikes in general, independent of the leaning of individual accounts towards ISIS or AQ Central.

Independent of the hash tag, AQAP’s media department issued two responses to the drone strikes end of April. The first response is a direct reply to the statements made by the Yemeni President Hadi, the other one is a commentary of AQAP commander Hamza al-Zinjibari; both documents were quickly translated into English and dispatched via Twitter and the ‘old media’ jihadi forums (here, here).


The Impact of Drone Strikes on Physical Networks – Limiting Online Jihadism?

The deaths of high ranking ideologues and leaders by missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles, that have in the past years become the operational backbone of the “war on terror”, have risen and seem to be the operational weapon of choice by military planners. With ideologues and media-valued activists such as U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaqi and his media operator Samir Khan killed in Yemen in 2011, or the targeted killing of the Libyans ‘Attiyatullah and Abu Yahya in 2012 in Pakistan only highlight prominent drone operations recently. Nevertheless, the extrajudicial killing of al-Awlaqi and Khan did not kill off the English jihadi magazine Inspire that had published a new edition in May 2012 under the title “winning on the ground.” This ninth edition (Winter 1433 / 2012) addressed its readers on the cover page, asking

“does the assassination of senior jihadi figures have any significance in validating Obama’s claims? After a decade of ferocious war, who is more entitled to security?”

It may be asserted that the U.S. operated drone program has similar affects on local populations as in Pakistan, although the degree differs from country to country. According to The Long War Journal, 354 drone strikes had taken place inside Pakistan and 95 bombing runs in Yemen. The impact of frequent or more regularly occurring drone strikes on the people on the ground is devastating and generates new grievances with innocents being either mistaken for legitimate targets or are nevertheless considered as acceptable collateral damage. A study on the impact of drone strikes in Pakistan is available here. The long-term side affects of drone warfare are open for debate, however, the tales of drone strikes and civilian suffering as a result of missile strikes have become a frequent narrative for jihadi videos and forums and are also addressed by scholars and journalists alike.

Killed civilians, mainly children, are pictured in jihadist propaganda material with the vow for revenge. The Shumukh al-Islam Forum in early May 2014 responded to the continuing drone activity inside Yemen that had recently killed a number of AQAP operatives. The administration of the forum via its media “workshop” (warsha) issued a forum thread showing several propaganda pictures and a video showing scores of killed people allegedly the result of drone strikes in Yemen. The “official account of warsha shumukh al-Islam for incitement” of the Shumukh al-Islam forum on Twitter is @warshshomokh1, which promoted both pictures and the video. The pictures in the forum thread relate the death of children to calls for revenge on a wider scale; other pictures visualized the close relationship of the U.S. and Yemeni government, in extremist reasoning defined as ‘one’ enemy, committed to the “war on Islam” likewise.


Drone Strikes in Yemen and the Response on Twitter

The posting of SSI in early May was the direct response to a drone strike that had killed about 40 AQAP members on April 21, 2014, as the New York Times reports. Shortly afterwards, on April 24, 2014, jihadi-linked accounts on Twitter started posting pictures and names of the alleged slain AQAP fighters. By using the hash tag #شهداء_القصف_الأمريكي_باليمن

All in all about 200 Tweets were issued from April 24 to April 27; all Tweets are in Arabic. The hash tag translated to “the martyrs of the American strike on Yemen.”

The distinctive feature of this Twitter network analysis is set on two key findings:

  1. a division between pro-ISIS and pro-AQ can be identified. The main underlining finding, however, is the common relation to the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen against AQAP, whereas most pro-ISIS media activists and followers nevertheless have high, if not higher, sympathies for AQAP. There is a shared opinion on AQAP and drone strikes, independent of the leaning of individual accounts towards ISIS or AQ Central.
  2. The hash tag referring to the drone strike was short-lived and quickly reached its peak when the majority of the martyrs had been announced on Twitter.

Four major hubs can be identified within this network on Twitter, with the respective accounts @_Glibeb, @AbuUsamh, @Adnan_Alawlaqi, and @al_khansaa2 as the most influential. These four major nodes are connected to each other by shared followers, who (re-) tweeted using the hash tag and by addressing accounts directly. Some of the interlinking accounts are further analyzed below.


Networking about 200 Tweets relating to the U.S. drone strike in Yemen the fatter the arrow the more often the source mentions the addressed account (click to enlarge and zoom in)

The biggest node in this network analysis is @Adnan_Alawlaqi, some of his followers are connected to the other three major nodes. By choosing “Alawlaqi”, the account claims a direct relationship to the Yemeni tribe and to the U.S.-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi who had been killed in a drone strike in 2011. For the avatar of this account Osma bin Laden has been chosen, the background picture shows “the martyr: Abu ‘l-Ghayth al-Shabwani”, a Yemeni AQAP fighter killed in a drone strike. For his web interface Twitter account, he has chosen the cover of the book “Why I Chose al-Qa’ida” which has been written by Abu Mus’ab, an AQAP affiliate who claimed being a member of al-Awlaq tribe. According to the book, Abu Mus’ab al-Awlaqi “was martyred in an American strike on Wadi Rafd in the Shabwa Province” in 2009. His full name is given as Muhammad ‘Umayr al-Kalawi al-‘Awlaqi. The foreword of the book has been written by AQAP chief Abu Basir (Nasir al-Wuhayshi), which evidently was finished shortly before the death of Abu Mus’ab. The about 80-page long book outlines in simple words and reasoning the motivation to have joined al-Qa’ida and serves as a guide to inspire and indoctrinate a non-Arabic audience. The English-language magazine Inspire has a regular section entitled “Why did I Choose Al Qaeda” where selected parts of the book are made available in English.

The most mentioned users in this data-set highlights the impact and importance of the major nodes, with @Adnan_Alawlaqi ranging at the top. @Qaadayaalumaa1 has been omitted in this analysis, although rank 4, it is not connected to the above network analysis. Instead, it is an independent sub-network that uses the same hash tag and shares similar content.

 A not connected network sharing same content on Twitter

[email protected]_Alawlaqi has a little over 4,000 followers and issued more than 2,000 Tweets as of May 12, 2014. The account is primarily affiliated with “the organization of al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula” and pictures from within Yemen and of drones are frequently published. It seems to be following the strict AQ conduct and has little to none connection to any ISIS related material.

Another major node in the network is @abuUsamh, as seen on the bottom right. According to his online profile, this is the account of Abu Usama al-Abini. His profile further states his clear favor of ISIS, hoping that

“the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham will remain and expand, by the will of God, #the lion cubs of jihad (#شبل_الجهاد) // my backup account is @abuusamh1.”

He refers to the “soldiers of Yemen” (jund al-Yemen) and lists his YouTube channel “greebe1.” His focus is also set on Yemen, but he approves and idealizes ISIS and their war in Syria as the future and considers them as an avant-garde that will soon arrive in Yemen as well. He has about 2,300 followers and issued 1,300 Tweets as of May 12, 2014.

@abuUsamh posted pictures of alleged victims of the April drone strike and provides further information. The name of the deceased seen here is given as “the Mujahid: Abu Tamim al-Qayfi (…) killed in the despicable American [missile] strike. Look at his smile!”

@abuUsamh is connected to @Adnan_Alawlaqi by three accounts, two of which also interlink to @_Glibeb. @Jeefsharp and @911Fahd interlink these two major nodes.

@_Glibeb refers to Jilbib al-Sharruri and has about 2,500 followers and issued close to 9,000 Tweets as of May 12, 2014. He too has a greater leaning towards ISIS and re-tweets and disseminates videos published by ISIS’s media channel al-Furqan:

“Special report on the civil service work by the Islamic State in Aleppo before ISIS was betrayed; preparing: Flour and bread – health care – electricity – overall services.” Two links are set in the Tweet, the first leads to YouTube where a sequence of the video Services provided for by the State of the ISIS series Rasa’il min ard al-malahem, part 14, is shown. The second link extends the civil aspect of ISIS by directing to a Facebook group.

Like most other Twitter accounts linked to this hash tag, @_Glibeb posts pictures of male victims of the airstrike with the impression that they indeed had been AQAP members. He may be of Yemini origin and possibly related to some of the deceased by tribal relations. The name “al-Sharruri” pops up frequently in Yemen and has also come to use among ISIS members in Syria. Abu Jandal al-Sharruri appeared in a video a while ago and the picture used to commemorate him on Twitter is a screen grab thereof.

The fourth most important node in this mini-network of approximately 200 Tweets is an account the reader of our work may already be acquainted with: @al_khansaa2. This account in this network is only linked via the account @aboyahay88 to the main node of @Adnan_Alawlaqi. The main objective, as for the others, is to document the martyrs of the drone strike and provide affirmative comments on pictures of killed AQAP members. All pictures issued within this particular hash tag are male, some are flashing weapons, and others are a screen grab from a jihadi video. One of the pictures shared by @al_khansaa2 is a typical Yemeni dressed man flashing his janbiyya ­ a specific type of dagger with a short curved blade that is worn on a belt. This is a sign of male hood and pride and very common on the streets in Yemen.

@aboyahay88, the account linking @al_khansaa2 to @Adnan_Alawlaqi also connects to two other nodes, @alabjani_21 and @Mooneer55. @aboyahay88, whose screen name is the sincere (الصديق) referring to Abu Bakr further states on his profile “We belong to God and to Him we shall return”, taken out of the Qur’an (2:156). This part of the Qur’an is often cited at funerals and generally expressed to sympathize with the deceased, emphasizing the conviction in the existence of the afterlife. Apart from this @aboyahay88 is a low-key and low profile node with only 438 followers and over 4,000 Tweets as of May 12, 2014. The majority of his shared pictures are Yemen related with some pictures apparently taken by a cell-phone, perhaps implying he has taken these himself. Other pictures are from ISIS accounts on Twitter. His Twitter account is linked to the open Facebook group al-Ta’ifa al-Mansura that has eleven members but no actions or shared material whatsoever. All eleven members are part of the jihadist cluster network and show related iconography.

@alabjani_21 is one of the more prolific Twitter accounts in this network, although not the biggest node in this particular network analysis. He has over 9,000 followers and Tweeted close to 17,000 times as of May 12, 2014. The chosen avatar is Ayman al-Zawahiri with both of hands held up towards the viewer – in a praying fashion, although it is clearly a screenshot of one of al-Zawahiri’s sermons televised by as-Sahab. @Mooneer55 in turn only has 787 followers but Tweet an impressive 11,700 times as of May 12, 2014. This account clearly aligns itself to ISIS with an avatar showing Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi and referencing “the book leading the right way” (kitab yahdi) and the “sword that assists” (sayyf yansur), as detailed in the chapter The ‘Arab Spring’ as a Renaissance for AQ Affiliates in a Historical Perspective.

Of greater interest are the two accounts linking the three nodes of @Adnan_Alawlaqi, @_Glibeb, @abuUsamh, which are:

@JeefSharp: This account is also in clear association to ISIS, stating in his profile,

“I pledge allegiance to the amir al-mu’mineen Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

He has a meager 185 followers and around 3,500 Tweets. The majority of these are retweets of ISIS related accounts and material, that is in parts also anti-Muslim Brotherhood who demand action instead of passive protests.

And @911Fahd: This account showcases the killed leader of the TTP, Hakim Allah Mehsud with an ISIS related avatar. He has a little over 1,000 followers and Tweeted an incredible 66,454 times as of May 12, 2014. The majority of his shared pictures are related to Iraq and ISIS but also include a picture of the Gaza-based Jund Allah and their leader Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisis – all of whom had been wiped out by their rival HAMAS in 2008. Like the above account, @911Fahd mainly retweets and is interlinked to high profile users such as @al_khansaa2 or @Adnan_Alawlaqi.



The analysis of this mini-dataset has shown that jihadist groups are framing the impact of drone strikes to strengthen the remaining fighters, celebrate the martyrs, and attempt to derive sympathy from a wider audience.
Drone strikes are a unifying issue, while a division between pro-ISIS and pro-AQ users is visible in terms of who they interact with, we did not find the same division in the content of 200 tweets which used this specific hash tag. On this specific issue, jihadist opinion appears to have been independent from individual allegiance to or sympathy for AQ or ISIS. While some pro-ISIS users openly wish for the emergence the Islamic State as a part of ISIS in Yemen, the pro-AQ accounts stuck to what al-Zawahiri had called for, unity among the Mujahideen. Other users simply admired the martyrs and sought to document and share as widely as possible reports of this ‘crusader’ attack.
This mini-dataset from Twitter has focused on two specific drone strikes in April 2014 in Yemen, but it is just one part of a wider cluster of jihadist content that has been exploding in terms of quantity and quality, particularly in relation to the war in Syria. In this wider context, drone strikes have impacted jihadist activity and ideology. For example, with the reality of drone warfare hitting jihadist groups hard in recent years, jihadist videos and ideological writings have adopted the theme of spies among the Mujahideen. A number of videos have emerged showcasing the confessions and subsequent execution of alleged spies. In addition, Abu Yahya al-Libi commemorated his friend and comrade Abu ‘l-Layth al-Libi after he was killed in a drone strike in 2008 and subsequently published a detailed book on shari’a law policy for jihadist groups a year later. Ironically, Abu Yahya was killed himself in Pakistan in a drone strike in June 2012 but his work has become an integral handbook for jihadist implementation of shari’a law in dealing with indicted Muslim spies among the ranks of the Mujahideen. It is often referenced in videos showing the execution of alleged spies in Yemen and Somalia. Through the combined analysis of the written and audio-visual layers, the way alleged Muslim spies are framed for jihadist propaganda can be assessed and tied into events such as this case study – the topic of a future post on Jihadica.


The University of Vienna, Near Eastern Department, initiated last February with the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI) the Syrian Engagement Project. The first conference was held in early February in Vienna where we sought to empower local Syrian political activists on the first day with a broader perspective on the second day, bringing together senior members of the Syrian opposition. For the first conference, we sought to provide a framework and a open floor for civil-society activists and the opposition to talk about their perspective and past experiences from a multitude of perspectives. TRI has recently published a conference report, available here.

As part of this series, a second conference will be held in Vienna on May 2, 2014. The theme of the second conference is, however, strictly related to security matters with the focus set on religious extremist groups in Syria, from both a Sunni and Shiite perspective. The conference Religious Extremism in Syria: A New Launching Pad for Global Terrorism? seeks to enable participants and speakers to engage in an open environment on how to deal with the implications of the turmoil in Syria.

The rise of confessional warfare and the effective recruitment of foreign fighters from the greater Middle East, Europe and beyond to join militant factions in Syria have implications far beyond the current conflict zones. The professional use of Social Media to attract young males for the cause and to raise funds has reached an unprecedented dimension that could perhaps transform Syria into a similar, if not worse, launching pad for global terrorism than Afghanistan. This one-day conference seeks to provide insight into a set of overlapping issues surrounding the Syrian conflict and its implications for Europe and the international community. The conference will bring together an interdisciplinary set of speakers to provide insight into extremist and other militant actors in the conflict and the implications for regional and international security.

The conference agenda with the speaker abstracts and bios is available as a pdf here.


09:00   Registration

09:30   Opening remarks, introductions, programme review, and administrative announcements by Nico Prucha

09:45   Tom Keatinge, Independent Analyst, “The Syrian Conflict and the Importance of Financing.”

10:15   Maura Conway, Dublin City University, “Assessing the Role of Social Media in the Syria Conflict.”

10:45   Tea and coffee break with oriental snacks

11:15   Joas Wagemakers, Radboud University Nijmegen, “Jordanian Salafis and the Syrian Conflict.”

11:45   Rüdiger Lohlker, University of Vienna, “True Romance: A New Paradigm for Jihadis in Syria and Beyond?”

12:15   Morning panel discussion

13:00   Lunch break

14:00   Nico Prucha, University of Vienna, “The Sectarian Divide in Syria as the Rationale of The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to Indoctrinate, Radicalize and Recruit Foreign Fighters”

14:30   Mahan Abedin, Dysart Consulting, “The Role of IRGC Qods Cops as Force Multiplier in the Syrian War.”

15:00   Tea and Coffee break with light snacks

15:30   Iranian Embassy Representative (Invited, TBC)

16:00   Syrian Embassy Representative (Invited, TBC)

16:30   Robert Wesley, Terrorism Research Initiative, “Why Egypt Matters in the Context of the Current Syrian Civil War.”

17:00   Afternoon panel discussion

18:00   Concluding Remarks and Farewell

Due to limited seating at the venue, registration for this event is mandatory. The Registration Fee for the Conference is 40 EUR/   per prospective attendee, which includes a light lunch of Middle Eastern food. To register, please purchase your ticket here:


Payment in cash at the venue is also possible.

For any issues regarding registration, please contact Nico Prucha (nico.prucha (at) univie.ac.at)

The rebel offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in northern Syria, which broke out on January 3, 2014, has dramatically heightened tensions between Jihadi-Salafi thinkers. As noted previously, two tendencies predominate among jihadis insofar as the Syrian war is concerned: one favoring the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and cooperation with all rebel groups, and another favoring ISIS and its exclusionary political designs as the reborn Islamic state, or proto-caliphate.

On the ground at least, the uprising against ISIS has not for the most part opposed the more pragmatic JN backers to the more ideological ISIS devotees. Although driven violently out of Raqqa by the Islamic State in mid-January, JN has largely stood aloof during this confrontation. Rather those arrayed against ISIS—what one jihadi author has termed “the tripartite aggression”—consist of two upstart groups, the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front and the Mujahidin Army, and the Islamic Front (IF), an Islamist umbrella organization founded in November 2013. Nonetheless, the fighting has aggravated intra-jihadi tensions as the ongoing hostilities focus attention on ISIS’s unique claim to statehood and the inviolable sovereignty that this implies.

The Maskana prelude

It was an escalating dispute between ISIS and IF affiliates in December in the town of Maskana, located on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo, which precipitated the present crisis. The Islamic State’s refusal to submit the dispute to arbitration pushed its rivals over the edge. The same recalcitrance in the current conflict has forestalled any progress in reaching a solution.

On January 1, the Islamic Front announced that one of its revered commanders, Abu Rayyan of Ahrar al-Sham, had been brutally tortured and killed by ISIS in Maskana. Abu Rayyan had headed to the town to mediate the month-long conflict there, which had led to tens killed and many prisoners taken by each side. For weeks Ahrar al-Sham had asked ISIS to allow a third-party—“an independent shar’ia court”—to make an independent ruling on the conflict, but a response was never forthcoming. In mid-December a shari’a consultant (shar’i) of Ahrar al-Sham issued a stern warning to ISIS: “I call openly on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: restrain your soldiers and reconsider your policy. We are in one ship and will all drown if it sinks. May he perish who refuses to submit to the judgment of the shari’a!” Following the death of Abu Rayyan, the Islamic Front’s political committee issued a further warning: “We warn the Islamic State organization not to follow in its its regular manner by standing in the way of…an independent court.” In an interview five days later, the local leader of ISIS in Maskana, one Abu Dujana al-Kuwaiti, blamed the Islamic Front for instigating the current anti-ISIS uprising, seen as part of a larger “global conspiracy” aimed at uprooting the Islamic State.

Before the death of Abu Rayyan, the events in Maskana drew the attention of two prominent jihadi thinkers, the pro-JN Iyad Qunaybi (@EYADQUNAIBI), a Jordanian and U.S.-trained pharmacologist who served in prison with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abu Humam al-Athari, a well-known Bahraini member of the pro-ISIS camp. Qunaybi condemned what he saw as the Islamic State’s refusal to answer requests for third-party arbitration. Addressing ISIS leaders, he wrote: “You command the people to submit to the ruling of God’s book…Then when you yourselves are called upon to do so, you say, ‘We have our own courts’… If the Islamic State organization only pays heed to itself, is its agenda really the agenda of the Islamic community?” Al-Athari responded with a refutation of Qunaybi’s “bizarre judgments.”[i] These he chalked up to Qunaybi’s irrelevant background in pharmacology. Qunaybi’s first mistake, said al-Athari, was his mischaracterization of the Islamic State as an “organization” (jama’a), as in reality it is a sovereign state (dawla). As such it cannot accept external legal supervision or mediation (except in coordination with an ISIS court), for that would “infringe on the right of the Muslim sovereign and his state.” Since the offensive against ISIS began, the question whether the Islamic State should accept arbitration has remained a central feature of the expanding intra-jihadi debate.


A series of initiatives has since called on the belligerent parties to authorize an independent tribunal to arbitrate the conflict. Predictably, ISIS has proved unwilling to accept any such thing.

The first initiative, presented by JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani in an audio message on January 7, proposed that a “legal commission” be formed by “all concerned parties” with a mandate to impose a solution. ISIS gave no public response to Jawlani, who in the same statement had blamed the Islamic State’s “wrongheaded policy” for “a large role in instigating the confrontation.” The pro-ISIS Abu Humam al-Athari, for his part, quickly came out with an aggressive refutation of Jawlani—“the renegade leader.” The real cause of rebel infighting in Syria, as he saw it, was not ISIS’s policy but rather Jawlani’s original defection from the ISIS ranks, a precedent for further revolt.

On January 19, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi presented a counter-initiative, essentially a plea for an unconditional ceasefire. In an audio statement he explained that his state was only fighting in self-defense, and so anyone who desisted from fighting would not be harmed.

Two days later a second initiatve was proposed by two jihadi thinkers of Egyptian origin, the London-based Hani al-Siba‘i and the Canadian-based Tariq ‘Abd al-Halim. While both have tended to favor JN over ISIS—they do not recognize ISIS as a state—their proposal praised Baghdadi’s ostensible offer of peace. Yet like Jawlani, they too premised their initiative on the formation of an independent shari‘a court empowered to issue a binding judgment. The result: no response.

The Siba‘i-‘Abd al-Halim gambit soon gave way to the so-called “Community Initiative” of prominent Saudi preacher ‘Abd Allah al-Muhaysani. The latter called on all concerned parties “to place the interest of the Islamic community ahead of the interest of the group.” Al-Muhaysani presented a detailed reconciliation plan again involving an independent tribunal of sorts. It required all parties to assent to the terms of the initiative within five days, which all but the Islamic State did (see here and here). At the last moment, as the initiative expired on January 27, ISIS published a statement informing that it would participate if all parties first agreed on what position to take on cooperating with the Syrian National Coalition, its Supreme Military Council, and the neighboring governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. Since ISIS rejects cooperation with all of them (ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani has essentially hereticized them) while the other parties do not (even Jawlani has indicated a willingness to work with the Gulf countries) the statement served to preempt all discussion of mutual arbitration. In closing, ISIS reminded its adversaries that “the initiative of the commander of the believers”—that is, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s peace offering—remained on the table.

A pro-IF jihadi

While most jihadi thinkers have tended to support either ISIS or JN as the epitome of the jihadi movement in Syria, one prominent jihadi ideologue, the Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi, has instead favored the Islamic Front and particularly Ahrar al-Sham, accusing the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra of representing foreign interests. In mid-January, Abu Basir took his criticism of ISIS to another level, issuing a fatwa branding the Islamic State a band of “extremist Kharijites,” a reference to the violent exclusionary sect in early Islamic history. Among other things, he accused ISIS of unduly hereticizing other Muslim rebels in Syria, torturing its prisoners, targeting fellow Muslims with suicide tactics, and  exploiting the phrase “the Islamic State.” “Their state,” he wrote, “exists only in their imaginations and feeble minds.” Jihad against ISIS is thus warranted till such time as they desist from their “injustice, oppression, and aggression.” Some IF members, including the leadership of Liwa’ al-Islam and the Suqur al-Sham Brigades, have recently made similar remarks comparing ISIS to the Kharijites.

While Abu Basir’s stature in jihadi discourse has suffered since last year when he denounced Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Athari apparently found that this fatwa merited a detailed response. This he delivered in a booklet intended to explain “the difference between the men of the [Islamic] State and the Kharijites.” Its main argument is that the accusations brought against ISIS today—especially that of excessive hereticization (takfir)—were precisely those leveled against the first Saudi state inspired by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab.

Pro-JN jihadis

The jihadi thinkers favoring JN have not gone so far as to brand the Islamic State a group of Kharijites. Rather their critique consists in a rejection—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—of ISIS’s claim to constitute a state with unimpeachable sovereignty. Iyad Qunaybi is an example of a pro-JN jihadi who has been outspoken in this rejection. Those who used to make it more subtly have started to join him.

Whereas two months ago Abu Qatada al-Filastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the two best-known jihadi thinkers alive, erred on the side of subtlety in  criticizing ISIS, since the offensive started they have quite noticeably sharpened their tone. During a court hearing in Amman in mid-January, Abu Qatada called on al-Baghdadi to scrap the “Islamic State” name and fight under Jabhat al-Nusra’s banner. He thereafter made his views clearer in an open letter, advising ISIS members in Syria to join JN and pleading with Baghdadi to follow the orders of Ayman al-Zawahiri and retreat to Iraq. According to Abu Qatada, while it is unlawful for Muslims to fight ISIS, the causes of the war against it lie in its stubborn insistence on statehood and in its unwarranted killing of other Islamist groups’ members. In his letter he is pessimistic that the conflict can be peacefully resolved, noting that since it “refuses to accept arbitration” of disputes, the Islamic State will not likely lend “receptive ears” to any call for reconciliation. That seems a pretty accurate prognosis.

In a leaked message from mid-January, al-Maqdisi likewise voiced his frustration with ISIS’s stubbornness. Additionally, he chided fellow jihadi ideologues al-Athari and Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, both of whom have contributed extensively to his popular website, for lending their support to the Islamic State’s radical policies. “I hope,” he is reported to have said, “that my anger reaches them.” Subsequently, in an open letter online, he struck a more conciliatory tone, though still managing to ridicule the idea that any jihadi group had become something “like the caliphate.” Reportedly al-Maqdisi was supportive of al-Muhaysani’s “community initiative.”

Pro-ISIS jihadis

Apart from al-Athari, two other noteworthy exemplars of the pro-ISIS jihadi camp are the Mauritanian al-Shinqiti (named by al-Maqdisi) and the Jordanian ‘Umar Mahdi Zaydan. Recently, neither has exhibited much restraint in criticizing ideologues of the competing camp. In an essay from early January, al-Shinqiti took aim at the argument of some thinkers (including Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi) that the Islamic State is not a “lawful emirate” but rather a mere “battlefield command.” “O you who have made war on the [Islamic] State with your fatwas,” he said, “you have created this state of division (fitna).” The proper course for all Muslim fighters in Syria, in his view, and the only way to avoid dissension, is that they give allegiance (bay‘a) to ISIS leader Baghdadi. In a mid-January audio address, Zaydan praised al-Athari and al-Shinqiti for defying “their shaykh” al-Maqdisi, “with whom they are associated” and to whose website they once contributed. Instead of heeding the wrongheaded opinion of their teacher, they had obeyed God and His messenger.

A deepening divide

The protests of the pro-JN camp, which includes those thinkers generally considered most influential within the jihadi movement at large, seem unable to shake the resolution of the partisans of the Islamic State. Over the last month the latter have only grown more resolute, even mustering the courage to refute their presumed elders. The Islamic State, which was meant to unify jihadis and expand their base of support, has in Syria created a stark division. As the ideological divide in jihadi discourse becomes more and more pronounced, the likelihood grows that the consequences for jihadi unity will be dire.


[i] According to unverifiable information from @wikibaghdady (on which see here), Abu Humam al-Athari is the pseudonym for Bahraini religious scholar Turki al-Bin’ali and has considerable ties to ISIS.

In policy circles as well as among both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists, the question of whether, how and why the Palestinian-Israeli conflict plays a role in al-Qaida’s global jihad is hotly debated. The reason for this is clear: pro-Israeli politicians and activists obviously don’t want to conclude that American support for Israel, for example, causes people to become jihadis fighting the US, while people with a more pro-Palestinian point of view are often keen to point out that there is a correlation between the two, presumably hoping for a more even-handed American approach towards the conflict.


Despite the fact that this question has often come up in debates, suprisingly little research has been done on the connection between transnational or global jihad on the one hand and the Palestinian question on the other. To address this issue, Jihadica alumnus Thomas Hegghammer and yours truly have edited a special issue of the journal Die Welt des Islams about this subject. It includes several articles as well as extra documents that will surely be of interest to Jihadica readers.

In the first article, Thomas and I address the question of “The Palestine effect“: what role do Palestinians and the Palestinian question play among global jihadis? Are Palestinians overrepresented among al-Qaida members or not? What role have Palestinian played in the global jihadi movement since its beginning? How has the Palestinian question developed from one seemingly monopolised by Arab nationalists to a cause championed by global Islamists? Does Palestinian suffering serve as a recruitment tool for al-Qaida? You can read our answers here.

Palestinian Ideologues

The next four articles of our special issue are dedicated to one Palestinian jihad ideologue each. The first of these is written by Mark Sanagan, a PhD-candidate at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, on ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam. Mark’s article (“Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Martyr: Rethinking ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam“) deals with al-Qassam’s Palestinian identity during his lifetime (he was killed in 1935 by the British) and his Palestinian legacy thereafter. Click here to read this fascinating article.

Thomas has written an article about the second ideologue dealt with in this issue, ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam. As many readers of Jihadica will know, Thomas has done extensive research on this man’s life, which becomes quite clear in this article, in which he shows that ‘Azzam is probably the most Palestinian of the ideologues dealt with in this special issue. We’ll have to wait for Thomas’ book on ‘Azzam for some time, but while waiting his article – which you can read here – is a good alternative.

As befits someone who’s written a book and many articles about him already, I dedicated my paper to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s Palestinian identity. While I have often heard (at conferences, sometimes during field work and even in peer review reports) that al-Maqdisi’s Palestinianness is quite important to him, no serious research has been done on this issue so far and the people saying this don’t always seem to know what they’re talking about either. Luckily, this has changed with the publication of my article, which you can read here.

Finally, Petter Nesser of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo, Norway, has authored an article on the Palestinian identity of a radical ideologue who’s been in the news a lot lately: Abu Qatada al-Filastini. Although this man’s name actually means “the Palestinian”, thus suggesting that he may be quite aware (and perhaps even proud) of his national identity, Petter comes to some interesting conclusions about Abu Qatada’s loyalties and how he feels about his Palestinian background. You can read the article here.

Documents and Active Citation

One of the added features of our special issue of Die Welt des Islams is that we also included several translated documents that are related to the subject. Thomas has selected three texts by ‘Azzam about the Palestinian question (“The Defence of Muslim Lands“, “Hamas” and “Memories of Palestine“), which you can read here, here and here. I have chosen two texts by al-Maqdisi: one about his ideas on jihad and another on his criticism of Hamas (read them here and here). Petter added an interview with Abu Qatada and an article describing the latter’s explanation of why a jihad should be waged (see the full texts here and here). All of these documents help explain how these ideologues feel about the Palestinian question.

Finally, all authors of this issue have decided to engage in what is referred to as “Active Citation“. As many readers will know, the links to jihadi documents often break because websites are taken down. To prevent the publications to which we refer in the footnotes from disappearing or becoming hard to find, we have uploaded them to our dropboxes and have provided direct links to these documents. This is not only a sign of academic transparency, but it also ensures that readers will continue to be able to read these documents, even if the websites from which they originally came disappear. You can find the direct links to “The Palestine Effect” here and here. The direct links to Mark’s article on al-Qassam can be accessed here, while Thomas provides his links here. The links to the sources used in my article can be found here and Petter gives his here.

What all of this adds up to is a fascinating special issue of Die Welt des Islams on a subject that should be of interest to a broad spectrum of specialists, academics and policy makers. Anyone interested in global jihad, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and/or Islamist ideology cannot afford to miss it.

Since the mid-November beheading in Aleppo of allied commander Muhammad Faris of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, a barrage of negative media attention has afflicted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). ISIS was concerned by its public image problem even before this signal mistake. In a September statement, Islamic State official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani defended his emirate from a perceived media onslaught, thought to be led by “the unbelieving West” and its regional allies and aimed at discrediting ISIS: playing up its feuds with other mujahidin in Syria and playing down its battlefield accomplishments. Another campaign to discredit the Islamic State, however, cannot be attributed to Western origin. It arises from within the jihadi community itself.

In November the two most high-profile jihadi ideologues alive today issued searing critiques of ISIS and its emir, al-Baghdadi. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, imprisoned in Jordan in the Umm al-Lu‘lu‘ facility in Zarqa‘ and the Muwaqqar prison outside Amman, respectively, came out in quick succession against the underlying premise of the Islamic State: namely, that it constitutes the reemergence of the original Islamic state, or caliphate, and that its leader, who adopts the title amir al-mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful), is the putative head of this renascent caliphate. ISIS has argued that it cooperates with other mujahidin in Syria, which is true. Yet it also quite clearly aspires to absorbing them all within its state structure. (On the political ideology of ISIS, see here.)

Over the past year most jihadi literature seems to have supported ISIS and its implied caliphal claims (see here and here for previous analysis). The double-headed rebuke from al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada marks a departure from this praise chorus, possibly with painful consequences for the Islamic State.

Abu Qatada’s letter

Abu Qatada al-Filistini’s critique was the first to surface, appearing online on November 1. Born in 1960, Abu Qatada is a Jordanian of Palestinian background whose real name is ‘Umar ibn Mahmud Abu ‘Umar. Forcibly repatriated to Jordan in July 2013 after a decade-long detention in the United Kingdom, where he received asylum in 1994, he currently stands accused of supporting terrorist activities in his home country.

His short rebuke of ISIS and al-Baghdadi takes the form of an open letter to the mujahidin in Syria, advising them as a veteran jihadi and witness to countless battlefield gains squandered by infighting. The mistakes of “previous experiences,” he warns, ought to be heeded, for the current “disunity and disputation” among Syrian mujahidin “terrify and horrify every admirer.”

This division he attributes first of all to jihadi “leaders” enamored of power and leadership. The context suggests that he has al-Baghdadi foremost in mind. Challenging his title of amir al-mu’minin, Abu Qatada avers: “There exists no emir firmly established such that he should be treated as the caliph—or with similar names and titles.” Jihadi groups today are fighting to achieve strength for establishing “the Islamic state.” But no organization is yet worthy of that name. It is an error for mujahidin to fight for their organization “as if it is an end in itself and not a means [to an end].” In the harshest words of his letter, Abu Qatada accuses anyone who would call himself “caliph” or “amir al-mu’minin” of espousing Shi‘i political doctrine, wherein “commanders and leaders are seen as divinely appointed rather than chosen by human beings.”

Abu Qatada also attacks fellow jihadi ideologues for lending support to ISIS. Their fatwas, he says, reflect “naïveté and childishness,” and their authors are “elementary students” or “pretenders to religious knowledge.” By categorically supporting one side in Syria they make unity and reconciliation ever more difficult. Abu Qatada advises the formation of a “shari‘a elite” composed of learned religious scholars with authority to issue binding judgments on political disputes.

The “Zarqawi” wing responds

Five days after it was published, a leading jihadi ideologue in Jordan, the Irbid-based shaykh ‘Umar Mahdi Zaydan, issued a five-page rebuttal of Abu Qatada’s letter. While Zaydan is a lesser-name figure compared to Abu Qatada or al-Maqdisi, he has according to two recent media reports (see here and here) played a key ideological role in supporting ISIS against its jihadi detractors. A former acquaintance of both al-Maqdisi and Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, Zaydan, about 40 years old, represents the latter’s more intransigent political tendency.

Jordanian researcher Mohammad Abu Rumman recently identified “two principal trends” in the jihadi movement in Jordan and Syria: “The first is the more pragmatic wing, represented by al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada; it adopts a position favorable to Jabhat al-Nusra, considering it a corrective to the path of al-Qa`ida in Iraq. The second trend is the extremist wing, represented by the followers of al-Zarqawi, or those who have been called neo-Zarqawis. One of their most prominent leaders is ‘Umar Mahdi [Zaydan], who has called publicly for allegiance to be given to the [Islamic] State [of Iraq and Sham] and al-Baghdadi.” In Jordan, Abu Rumman notes, the pragmatic wing of jihadism is the intellectually and culturally more powerful. The Zarqawi wing, however, has had more influence on the ground; far more Jordanians fight for ISIS than for Jabhat al-Nusra.

Zaydan’s rejoinder to Abu Qatada is entitled “Refuting the Statement of the One Who Considered the Islamic Caliphate a Part of the Shi‘i Religion.” According to Zaydan, Abu Qatada’s comparison of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham to the Sh’i imamate is offensive. This letter, he notes, despite its oblique language not specifying names or groups, is doubtless an attack on ISIS and al-Baghdadi: “a clear accusation against him, his leaders, and his soldiers of ignorance, capriciousness, and love of power.”

Abu Qatada goes wrong, according to Zaydan, by refusing to recognize the special significance of the Islamic State, which is not just one jihadi “group” among others. It is the reborn Islamic state. Quoting Osama bin Laden, Zaydan asserts that ISIS is an “imara shar‘iyya” (lawful emirate) or “imara kubra” (supreme command). It is not, as Abu Qatada claimed, an “imarat jihad” or “imarat harb” (battlefield command). Zaydan makes clear elsewhere that he views al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State as nothing else but “the Islamic Caliphate.”

Zaydan is clearly offended by Abu Qatada’s further claim, which is that ISIS’s supporters are invariably “childish and naïve.” Listing the names of twelve jihadi ideologues and their works supporting ISIS, Zaydan asks, “Are all of these naïve…and childish?” The list of supporters includes Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, Abu Sa‘d al-‘Amili, Abu Humam al-Athari, Abu al-Hasan al-Azdi, and Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab. (All of them have been discussed previously on Jihadica.)

In his conclusion, Zaydan suggests that al-Maqdisi, his former teacher, would agree that Abu Qatada chose an inappropriate time to “attack the mujahidin” of ISIS. Unfortunately, Zaydan was unaware that on November 5 al-Maqdisi too had authored a short rebuke of ISIS. (On al-Maqdisi, see here, and see Joas Wagemakers’s new book.)

Al-Maqdisi’s letter

Al-Maqdisi’s critique of ISIS appeared twelve days later on November 17 as a short memorandum to certain mujahidin in Syria soliciting his advice: “They informed me that they attach importance to my advice and are not heedless of my guidance; indeed they teach my books to their soldiers.” Calling for greater unity among the mujahidin in Syria, al-Maqdisi’s letter is more measured and less admonishing than Abu Qatada’s. It likewise denies, however, the Islamic State’s claim to emirate or proto-caliphate status.

Al-Maqdisi stresses “the clear difference between battlefield commands…and the politically capable [Islamic] state.” The path to proper Islamic statehood, he affirms, follows certain “stages” that lead to “political capability.” Skipping any of these stages—i.e., declaring a state prematurely as ISIS has done—is dangerous as it foments internal warfare. Addressing “our brothers in Jabhat al-Nusra and our brothers in the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham,” al-Maqdisi advises that they fight “under one banner and under one emir.” That emir is obviously not al-Baghdadi, for he also advises that before this they “seek unity under the aegis of a shura council.” In a more explicit rejection of al-Baghdadi’s status as emir, he emphasizes that Syria’s jihadi leadership ought to be of Syrian origin, the better to appeal to the Syrian people. Al-Baghdadi is of course Iraqi.

Al-Maqdisi ends his letter with an appeal to fellow jihadi scholars to support the banner of tawhid (unity) in Syria and not show partiality to one group or another. With these words he seems intent on curbing junior jihadi ideologues’ excitement over ISIS. The implication is that they should refrain from calls for bay‘a, or the pledge of allegiance, to be given to al-Baghdadi.

An enduring debate

The debate over the Islamic State’s readiness for statehood, or its “political capability” (tamkin), is by no means new. In 2006 the Islamic State of Iraq’s shari‘a council issued a 90-page document addressing just this issue. It noted that the original state of the Prophet Muhammad was founded on much less territory and with far less capability than the new Islamic state in Iraq.

This is just one of a number of points of contention over ISIS that has generated a daunting amount of disputatious literature. One jihadi author, claiming to represent Jabhat al-Nusra, recently produced several hundred pages of rebuttal to the three pro-ISIS works of Abu Humam al-Athari, Abu al-Hasan al-Azdi, and Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab (see here, here, and here). This in turn inspired a counter-refutation—a merciful 25 pages—by yet another pseudonymous author.

Until now the momentum in this debate has favored ISIS and al-Baghdadi, but the new contributions from Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi may prove a serious obstacle in their advance. At the very least they highlight the stark divide in the jihadi movement today between supporters of a hardline, “caliphate now” strategy and those of more pragmatic mind.