The Forgotten Caliphate

Posted: 31st December 2014 by Kévin Jackson in Uncategorized

By proclaiming the re-establishment of the caliphate last June, the Islamic State has significantly stirred up the transnational jihadi landscape. Many characterized this bold claim to be a significant shift from the traditional jihadi organzations. Indeed, although striving to erect a global caliphate, al-Qa`ida and others have never pretended to be more than mere fighting groups. In contrast, the Islamic State projects itself as the sole legitimate Islamic body to which bay`a (allegiance) is due.

Though this development was occasionally deemed unprecedented, taking a historical perspective puts this supposed novelty in context. Two decades ago, al-Qa`ida and the broader Arab-Afghan community were already dealing with what they regarded as hardliners with invalid caliphal credentials. While little known outside militant circles, the name of this group, Jama`at al-Muslimin (JM), left vivid memories among those who witnessed its rise and subsequent downfall.

A Caliph in Training

The history of JM mainly revolves around the figure of Muhammad bin Isa bin Musa al-Rifa`i, also known by his noms de guerre Abu `Isa al-Rifa`i and Abu Hammam al-Filistini. Born in al-Zarqa in 1959, this Jordanian doctor of Palestinian origin began his activism with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the mid-1980s, Abu `Isa moved to Pakistan where he continued practicing medicine but was also involved in da`wa (missionary) activities and the support of the Afghan jihad. At the time, he came to interact with a number of notorious jihadi leaders, including Usama bin Ladin and `Abdallah `Azzam.

In the early 1990s, Abu `Isa returned to Jordan and eventually fell out with the Brotherhood on ideological grounds, as his stern beliefs on tawhid (God’s unicity) were on par with the party’s stance on political participation. Indeed, according to his former companion Abu al-Muntasir, by then Abu `Isa had “adopted the ideology of jihad”. Together, they created the group “al-Da`wa wa-al-Jihad”, later dismantled by the authorities. Abu `Isa was actively involved in propagating the Salafi-jihadi message, notably distributing the writings of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and calling for fighting against U.S. soldiers in Iraq during the Gulf War. According to Hasan Abu Haniyya, Abu `Isa emerged as a key player in shaping the Jordanian Salafi-jihadi current.

Along with some of his comrades, the radical preacher was arrested and jailed in the case of “Jaysh Muhammad” (Muhammad’s Army), a local faction founded by a Jordanian veteran of the Afghan jihad. After four months in prison, where he was tortured, Abu `Isa was released and migrated once again to Peshawar, likely around 1992.

A Leaderless Umma

To understand how Abu `Isa ended up claiming to be the caliph, one has to take into account the particular period in which he made his claim. As the senior Egyptian jihadist Abu al-Walid al-Misri remarks, the Arab-Afghan milieu was in dire shape at the time, especially owing to the leadership vacuum caused by `Abdallah `Azzam’s murder and Usama bin Ladin’s house arrest in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Arab figures and groups were leaving Peshawar.

Judging by JM’s account, its caliphal project was rooted in a number of debates between “scholars and students of Islam” in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. While the Soviets had been defeated, they stated, “the shear ignorance of many so-called leaders of the Jihad had left many Muhajireen and Mujahideen bewildered.” These discussions concluded that the original mistake of the mujahidin was that they had entered the Afghan arena split into multiple groups, leading them to fight each other after the Soviet withdrawal. While the umma was “meant to be one body with one head and one goal”, they added, it found itself leaderless and weakened by internal divisions. The straightforward solution was for Muslims to “unify and come together under one common leadership”, that of the imam or khalifa (caliph). From their perspective, “this will […] automatically restore the strength to the Ummah.”

Looking for the Caliph

Although Abu `Isa was the founding amir of JM, it appears that other figures were the original authors of its program. Indeed, it was Abu `Uthman al-Filistini, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian origin, who came to Abu `Isa in Peshawar and who advocated restoring a unifying, shari`a-based structure as the only way for the umma’s salvation. Another prominent actor in the process was Abu Ayyub al-Barqawi, a Sudanese religious seeker, who also pushed for the caliphate idea. The issue for them was to find the right man for the job, as a caliph has to meet certain requirements, and they thus started their quest. A suitable candidate had been found in Saudi Arabia, but he was later arrested.

During their search, Abu `Isa went to Britain, where he called for absolute monotheism and attempted to gather new followers and financial support. In Peshawar, his acolytes found out that Abu `Isa apparently descended from the Prophet Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe, a central feature for a caliph. Thus, on April 3, 1993, the Peshawar-based associates of Abu `Isa swore loyalty to him as the caliph, with Abu `Uthman acting as the group’s deputy.

In “The return of the system of khilafa”, Abu Ayyub, now JM’s qadi (judge), officially recognized the appointment of Abu `Isa, announcing that “after great deal of (…) consultation some Muslimeen (including people of Knowledge from different parts of the world) pledged the great bay’ah (…) to ‘Abu Isa Muhammad Ali bin Ahmad Al-Hashimy Al-Quraishy”. Besides stressing the necessity of allegiance to the khalifa, he also outlined the latter’s duties, including “[demolishing] all man-made laws” contradicting the shari`a and “[opposing] all kufr [infidel] governments”. In the meantime, he was to gather all Muslims around his leadership and impose Islam’s primacy through jihad.

A Decried Ideology

The banner of JM, the group maintains, attracted recruits “from many different nationalities”, adding that these newcomers operated in “approximately forty countries”. This appeal was partly corroborated by Abu al-Walid who was surprized to see “a large number of Arabs”, including experienced figures, rallying to Abu `Isa’s cause. Nonetheless, based on Abu Qudama Salih al-Hami’s account, while the group did attract volunteers from various countries, the dominant constituency of Abu `Isa’s supporters was made of North-African jihadis.

The caliph’s claims and agenda evoked the ire of the jihadi community. Arab-Afghans repeatedly rebuked the caliph’s group applying unbridled takfir (excommunication) to ever-larger groups of people. For instance, Yusuf al-`Uyayri, the slain head of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula, posited that JM pronounced takfir upon Muslim scholars and populations. Furthermore, he objected to calling its members mujahidin, as they rejected fighting alongside Afghan parties, and even hinted at the involvement of “malicious services” behind this kind of groups.

The hostility faced by JM also lay in the group’s self-proclaimed identity, namely as the only legal Islamic entity, hence vilifying any outsider. This exclusionary approach, Abu al-Walid asserts, translated into JM holding that “any person who does not pledge allegiance to the caliph (…) shall be punished by death”, given that it considered its oath incumbent upon every Muslim. The group demanded fealty from the Arab factions in Khurasan (Afghanistan-Pakistan), including al-Qa`ida. Indeed, upon Bin Ladin’s return to Afghanistan in May 1996, Abu `Isa sent delegates to the Saudi to command him to swear bay`a or face retaliation. In spite of the envoys’ efforts to discuss the matter, the al-Qa`ida leader shunned them.


Besides its ideological stringency, JM was also blamed for its sweeping violence against other fellow Muslims, including jihadis. According to Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, the former top theologian of al-Qa`ida, because JM’s members viewed themselves as a part of a genuine caliphate, they “fought people [and] many bad deeds were committed”. These crimes have been detailed by Abu al-Walid, who recounts how Abu `Isa’s disciples “carried out acts of kidnapping, killing, and fistfights with their opponents”. Their threats to the Arabs who refused to join the group and to their families eventually resulted in anger, leading many group members to flee Peshawar for the tribal areas, only to be kicked out again by the tribesmen who had refused to obey Abu `Isa’s authority.

Together with his followers, the isolated caliph settled in the Afghan province of Kunar, where the group suffered significant losses, as many were killed, imprisoned or deserted. Moreover, their reputation further deteriorated as Abu `Isa issued “sad and funny” fatwas, as Abu al-Walid puts it, notably sanctioning the use of drugs–a nexus had been forged between JM and local drug smugglers. (The fatwa led one jihadist author to dismiss Abu `Isa as the “caliph of the Muslims among drug traffickers and takfir”.) Abu `Isa also prohibited the use of paper currency and ordered his men to burn their passports.

In 1996, the group was a shell of itself, with a tenuous remaining cadre. Their position in Afghanistan was further threatened as the Taliban leader Mullah `Umar also claimed to be amir al-mu`minin (commander of the believers). The asymmetry in this legitimacy contest was obvious: while Mullah `Umar had won the support of many local clerics and his movement had consolidated its territorial holdings inside Afghanistan, Abu `Isa’s endeavor to legitimize his stature was floundering, not least because of the transgressions his entourage was accused of, including murder, armed robbery and torture. Once the Taliban took over Kunar, the group decided to flee to London.

In Londonistan

Just as they had failed in Khurasan, Abu `Isa and his disciples were also unable to dominate the Londonistan scene where they ardently advocated their cause. Here too their thinking was widely seen as abhorrent by the broader Salafi-jihadi diaspora.

One of the most outspoken critics of JM was Abu Qatada al-Filistini, who had opposed the group’s project from the beginning. In London, the two parties often debated on the issue of the caliphate, with JM trying to garner Abu Qatada’s support, but to no avail. Indeed, the Jordanian jihadi ideologue viewed the “sprouting chickens” of JM as “a group that has come forward in ignorance”. He went as far as saying to Abu `Isa that his manhaj (methodology) was “a combination of the deviance of the Rafidhah [a derogatory term for Twelver Shi`a] and the Khawarij [an early radical Islamic sect]”. This mutual hatred was best captured during a filmed debate in Finsbury Park in 1997. While Abu `Isa and Abu Ayyub admonished Abu Qatada for his fatwa allowing the killing of the families of Algerian security personnel, the latter sought to portray Abu Ayyub and his likes as the real responsibles for GIA’s crimes by having rendered the Algerian society apostate.

Other noteworthy Londonistani figures rebuffed JM’s thinking. One of these was the Jamaican `Abdallah al-Faysal, who took issue with the group’s “crazy ideas”. Among these was JM’s condemnation of performing the Hajj, under the pretext that the Saudi ruling family was apostate. “The reason people pass these dodgy fatwas”, he asserted, “is because they are jahil [ignorant]”. Similarly, the Syrian preacher `Umar Bakri Muhammad explained that Abu `Isa’s understanding of the caliphate was “very weak” and that, notwithstanding his pretensions, he would not be “able to fulfill the role of [amir al-mu`minin]”.

Abu `Isa’s Legacy

In early 2006, Abu `Isa was arrested and detained in Belmarsh prison, before being released on health ground and eventually passing away on March 4, 2014. Despite their leader’s death, his supporters remain eager to perpetuate his legacy, notably on their facebook page and website. Their determination was on display when they declared that their group still stood as “the only legitimate shariah structure”, while conceding that “the imaamah [leadership] of the previous Imaam appointed in 1993, has become invalid”. Absent a suitable successor, JM has still appointed a new leader to run its affairs.

While Abu `Isa’s rethoric was widely disparaged, this does not mean JM had no influence on the jihadi community. Although dubbed “a tragic project” by Abu al-Walid al-Misri, the latter still holds it as one the two most important movements involving Arab-Afghans post-92. Here lies the ambivalence of JM’s legacy: while its members are remembered as marginal takfiris, their experience still resonates in today’s jihadi old guard as a bitter lesson to the younger generations. The matter is even more relevant today as jihadist elders watch the same thorny issues intertwine with the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The criticisms leveled at JM bear indeed striking similarities to those leveled at the Islamic State. Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, for instance, considers that just as JM before it, the Islamic State has been guilty of rushing into declaring a caliphate. Also reminiscent of what was said about JM’s misconduct, al-Mauritani blames Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces for “[engaging] in wars and conflicts, in which blood was shed and the honor of women was violated.” Commenting on the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Abu al-Walid al-Ansari bemoaned its unilateralism that violated the principle of shura (consultation), just as JM had been scolded for lacking the required support to be acknowledged. He reminds readers how the Khurasan-based milieu had previously faced the issue of extremism in its ranks, likely thinking of the likes of JM. As for Abu Qatada, his vitriolic book “The cloak of the khalifa” goes a step further as it explicitly links what he sees as the “deviance” of the Islamic State to the influence of JM’s creed, adding that the same JM figure who used to call him infidel in London had now joined the Islamic State’s ranks, likely referring to Abu `Umar al-Kuwaiti.

The point is not to equate the Islamic State with JM, as many differences exist between the two. For example, as Abu Qatada acknowledges it himself; although Abu `Umar al-Kuwaiti rallied Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s banner, he was later arrested by the Islamic State for his inflexible interpretation of takfir. This suggests that, even for the self-styled caliphate, JM’s views were too extreme. Also, there is an obvious disparity between the Islamic State’s military and governance capacity and that of JM, which has ever been able to meet its grand ambitions.

That said, there is a clear pattern in how al-Qa`ida and like-minded groups have expressed their concerns with regard to JM and the Islamic State’s policies on issues such as takfir, the use of violence and consultation with others. Both groups have been severely reprimanded for shedding innocent blood, charging their coreligionists with unbelief and acting unilaterially. As a result, both have been seen as a liability and frequently labeled as a contemporary version of the khawarij by their warring brethren.

Whether the Islamic State’s virulence will be its undoing and lead it to meet the same fate as JM is of course the million dollar question. 

Since the caliphate declaration of late June 2014, Yemen has emerged a key battleground in the intra-jihadi struggle pitting the Islamic State against al-Qaeda. The country hosts what is arguably al-Qaeda’s most prestigious affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But as far as the Islamic State is concerned, that organization ceased to exist when the caliphate was declared. Thereafter all jihadi groups were expected to dissolve themselves and incorporate within the all-supreme caliphate.

Preemptive bay‘a

In mid-November, the Islamic State, driving home this point, officially declared its “expansion” to Yemen, among other target countries, proclaiming “the dissolution of the names of the groups in them and declaring them to be new provinces of the Islamic State.” A series of bay‘as— statements of allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—were issued simultaneously on November 10 from Yemen, Arabia, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. Three days later, Baghdadi “accepted” the pledges, conferring on the new territories the status of “provinces.” In two of the countries—Egypt and Algeria—the bay‘as came from preexisting jihadi groups known for their ties to the Islamic State. But in Yemen the statement of allegiance came not from that country’s well-established jihadi group—AQAP—but rather as a challenge to it.

Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, as Saud al-Sarhan has detailed in an important new study, is deeply divided over which side in the jihadi civil war to support: the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Previously, the group had tried to adopt a more-or-less neutral stance. But the bay‘a, apparently calculated to force AQAP’s hand, compelled it to choose sides. And it definitively chose al-Qaeda. Predictably, pro-Islamic State jihadis online are outraged. The pro-Islamic State Yemeni community, however, has been more nuanced in response.

Yemen’s Islamic State supporters

As Sarhan noted, the two most noteworthy Yemeni promoters of the Islamic State are ‘Abd al-Majid al-Hittari (@alheetari), an independent preacher, and Ma’mun Hatim (@sdsg1210), an AQAP scholar. Both were early supporters of the Islamic State when its conflict with al-Qaeda heated up in late 2013, and both lent their imprimaturs to the Ghuraba’ Media Foundation’s February “Statement of Brotherhood in Faith for Support of the Islamic State.” Signed by 20 jihadi scholars, this called on all Muslims fighting in Syria to give bay‘a to Baghdadi, and on all Muslims across the world to support the Islamic State.

Both Hittari and Hatim were likewise supportive of the Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate on June 29, 2014. Hittari wrote an essay in its favor, telling Baghdadi he would “urge the Muslims [of Yemen] to prepare to obey you.” Hittari furthermore endorsed Baghdadi’s decision upon declaring the caliphate to dissolve all competing jihadi groups across the world. As the caliphate declaration had noted, “the legitimacy of your groups and organizations is void.” Concurring, Hittari told Baghdadi: “I believe that your dissolution of the Islamic groups is a successful step on the path to uniting the Muslim community around its state and its emir.”

Hatim, for his part, congratulated those who “made the dream [of the caliphate] a reality.” And in mid-June he also gave his support to the strategy of dissolving other groups. In a long audio recording online he addressed “my brothers in the branches of al-Qaeda, in all countries and regions and lands,” urging them to unite within the Islamic State, which would be “the first of your steps toward [achieving] victory and political capability.” Ma’mun Hatim did not speak for the entire AQAP leadership, however.

Bay‘a for bay‘a

Unlike al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib, AQAP did not issue an early statement rejecting the Islamic State’s caliphate. Nor did it adopt the central al-Qaeda leadership’s dismissal of the Islamic State as a mere “group” as opposed to a “state.” AQAP sought to walk a neutral line. But the surprise bay‘a on November 10 changed that.

A week and a half later, in a video dated November 19, AQAP came out with its first significant refutation of the Islamic State, contesting its claim to have dissolved AQAP and to have founded a province in its stead. In a 30-minute address, senior AQAP scholar Harith al-Nizari reiterated his group’s desire for neutrality in the intra-jihadi conflict in Syria, urging all parties to consult an independent shari‘a court. But he denounced what he called the Islamic State’s effort to “export the fighting and discord [in Syria] to other fronts,” namely Yemen.

Two steps taken by the Islamic State were in particular disagreeable. The first was the caliphate declaration, which Nizari deemed illegitimate. Neither the proposed “caliphate” nor its “caliph,” he said, met the necessary conditions stipulated in the shari‘a. Furthermore, the time was not right for appointing an “imam,” or caliph. The second was the Islamic State’s more recent effort to eliminate AQAP via the preemptive bay‘a. “We call on our brothers in the Islamic State,” Nizari said, “to retract the fatwa to dissolve the groups and divide them…We consider them responsible for what could result…of the shedding of unlawful blood on the pretext of expansion and extending the authority of the state.”

Clarifying AQAP’s ultimate loyalties, Nizari defended Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda against charges of “deviation,” and he rejected the idea that AQAP could simply fold and gave bay‘a to the Islamic State as that would violate the terms of the group’s current bay‘a to al-Qaeda. He then reaffirmed his group’s loyalty to the al-Qaeda leadership: “We reject the call to split the ranks of the mujahid groups, and we renew the bay‘a to our commander, Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri, and, via him, the bay‘a to Mullah ‘Umar.” The nature of this latter bay‘a to Mullah ‘Umar was left unspecified, but it plays to al-Qaeda leaders’ recent efforts (see here and here) to cast the Taliban ruler in a caliphal role.

Refuting AQAP

Harith al-Nizari’s address was of course met with condemnation from pro-Islamic State writers online. Four scholarly refutations were quick to appear (see here, here, here, and here), all by pseudonymous authors. Three of them are prolific and well-known—Abu Khabbab al-‘Iraqi (@kbbaab), Abu Maysara al-Shami, and Abu l’-Mu‘tasim Khabbab (@abu_almuttasim). The latter’s refutation earned the endorsement of Hittari.

These pieces made several of the same points. First: AQAP’s pretense of neutrality is a sham, for there can be no neutrality. One is either on the side of “Divine Truth” (the Islamic State) or on that of “falsehood” (al-Qaeda). Second: Against Nizari’s claim to the contrary, the caliph and caliphate of the Islamic State no doubt meet the “conditions” mandated by Islamic law. On this matter AQAP is simply “lying” and deceiving; its leaders’ lust for power is preventing them from admitting what they surely know. Third: The Islamic State is no source of “discord”; rather it is the intransigence of groups like AQAP, which refuse to join the caliphate, that accounts for disunity. Fourth: AQAP’s claim to have a bay‘a to Mullah ‘Umar is incoherent. As one author points out: “Why is it OK for Mullah ‘Umar to gather bay‘as from territories in which he has no authority…while that is forbidden for Baghdadi?” And did not Nizari say that this is not the right time for appointing a caliph? If so, then how can he give Mullah ‘Umar bay‘a as putative caliph?

The anger and frustration in these refutations are apparent. Yet not all pro-Islamic State jihadis castigated Nizari so ardently. A prominent one of their number—a certain Abu ’l-Hasan al-Azdi—actually cautioned against attacking AQAP, urging measured argument. Responding to Abu Maysara al-Shami’s refutation, he said it would be wise not to antagonize jihadis who have yet to support the Islamic State; such argumentation only deepens the “chasm of the conflict.”

Dueling approaches in Yemen

In Yemen itself, the events of November drew different responses from the two main pro-Islamic State advocates there, ‘Abd al-Majid al-Hittari and Ma’mun Hatim. Each now represents a different way of being a pro-Islamic State jihadi in the country.

Hittari was unreservedly supportive of the Islamic State, applauding its “expansion” and condemning AQAP’s response. AQAP leader Nizari, he said, had failed to “comprehend the wisdom of the [current] stage [of jihad].” That is, the stage of the caliphate. One is either with it or against it. He encouraged the Islamic State to hold fast to its current strategy in Yemen.

Hatim was of a different mind. In a series of revealing Tweets, he argued that the Yemeni bay‘a to the Islamic State of November 10 was flawed. He did not denounce those who gave the bay‘a. Indeed, he revealed that he knows who they are: “the majority of them are among the best people I have known, and a large number of them are my students and brethren.” Nor did he reject the notion of the Islamic State’s expanding: “We are not opposed to the expansion of the [Islamic] State.” The problem was the means, not the ends: “We have to consider the correct and legitimate means for [achieving] its expansion.” In the present circumstances of Yemen, “the harmful consequences that will obtain from the bay‘a and the proclamation of a new group in one theater are many, many times greater than the desired benefit of that announcement and the division.” With regard to those circumstances, he spoke of “facing a fierce, multi-front war” in Yemen, referring to AQAP’s battles with the Yemeni government, the Houthi Shi‘a movement, and the United States.

From Hatim’s perspective, there are two ways to support the Islamic State in Yemen. “We,” he said, referring to pro-Islamic State jihadis, “are before two choices. Either we rush the bay‘a, meaning division, separation, weakness, and failure, or we act patiently in the coming days, ensuring that opponents’ understanding is rectified and their views clarified.” What Hatim wants—“what we strove for and called for”—is “a group bay‘a,” meaning a bay‘a given by AQAP to the Islamic State, not one meant to undermine the group. But that has yet to materialize. Aspiring to such an outcome, however, remains in his view a better option than fragmenting Yemen’s jihadis.

Some jihadis online have faulted Hatim’s siding with AQAP. As one representative critic stated, “maybe war”—not patience—“is the inevitable treatment for the ailment.” But at least one major pro-Islamic State jihadi online, Abu Khabbab al-‘Iraqi, defended the Yemeni to a degree. Hatim should be reproved for “his hesitation to give bay‘a to the Islamic State and come under its banner,” he said, but this should be done as to a “loved one,” not an enemy.

The Yemeni third way

There would thus appear to be a bit more flexibility on the part of pro-Islamic State jihadi ideologues when it comes to Yemen as opposed to elsewhere. At least two of these—Abu ’l-Hasan al-Azdi and Abu Khabbab al-‘Iraqi—have told their peers to tone it down in criticizing those Yemenis reluctant to join the caliphate. This is a flexibility hitherto absent from pro-Islamic State jihadi discourse, which has previously shown no tolerance for any kind of neutrality. It is as yet unclear whether the Islamic State’s new Yemeni “province” will really compete with AQAP. But it seems likely that any confrontation will be significantly delayed by Hatim’s staking out of a plausible Yemeni third way.

Amid the ongoing conflict between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, jihadi ideologues and media appear more divided than ever before. Notwithstanding U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that some thought could unite jihadi ranks, the jihadi civil war is raging on unabated, and nowhere more so than on the ideological and media front. Among more traditional media, it is now the norm for jihadi web forums to identify—even openly—with one belligerent or the other. Some forums, such as Platform Media and Tahaddi, promote the Islamic State, with Shumukh more or less also on board; Fida’ and ‘Arin, among others, clearly favor al-Qaeda.

Yet the real jihadi battle of wits is not being waged on or between the forums. The ideological battlefield is defined, rather, by a number of upstart media outlets on Twitter supportive of the Islamic State, on the one side, and a few established websites of older jihadi scholars supporting al-Qaeda, on the other. Among the mass of competitors are two most worthy of attention. These are Mu’assasat al-Ghuraba’ lil-I‘lam (“The Ghuraba’ Media Foundation”), a pro-Islamic State Twitter outlet, and Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (“The Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad”), a pro-al-Qaeda website overseen by the Jordanian jihadi Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

The Newcomer and the old-timer

The competition between the Ghuraba Media Foundation and Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (hereafter Ghuraba’ and Minbar, respectively) is very much one between new media and old. It highlights the generally more youthful profile of Islamic State supporters contra their more senior, pro-al-Qaeda counterparts.

Minbar ( was founded in or around 2002 by al-Maqdisi (b. 1959), arguably the most well-known jihadi scholar alive. It features the largest online library of jihadi books, essays, fatwas, and audio recordings, and is further known for its “Shari‘a Council” of select scholars who respond to queries from visitors on a range of subjects, including jihad. Like other questionable Arabic websites, its domain name is registered in Samoa (.ws). Minbar does not regularly partake in social media.

The newcomer, Ghuraba’, has a completely different modus operandi, relying instead on social media and free upload sites. Founded in late 2013, it is largely a Twitter phenomenon, having started with the handle @alghuraba_ar. While Twitter’s censors routinely delete it, the outfit quickly reappears at each inconvenience, simply adding a number to its handle. (It is currently @alghuraba_ar04.) To create more permanent links to its files, Ghuraba’ relies on websites like, and for storage it uses sites such as and Every week Ghuraba’ publishes, in slick PDF documents, multiple essays and books, most of which are devoted to defending the Islamic State against its detractors. Its growing archive of writings (for the moment available here) is becoming a rival, however modest, to Minbar’s jihadi library. The authors it regularly features have likewise become something of a rival to Minbar’s Shari‘a council.

Shari‘a councils of war

On August 16, 2014, Minbar unveiled a new lineup for its relaunched Shari‘a council, defunct since September 2013. The two men last writing for it, Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti and Turki al-Bin‘ali, had adopted a pro-Islamic State position and, it appears, left their posts on the council. These two had also written lengthy works in favor of the Islamic State, subsequently removed by Minbar. By late 2013 Minbar was evidently censoring all pro-Islamic State writings, and Ghuraba’ began publishing the works of Shinqiti and Bin‘ali.

The new Shari‘a council has displayed Minbar’s now well-known bias for al-Qaeda and animus toward the Islamic State. Among the five new members is Sami al-‘Uraydi (b. 1973; @sami_oride), a Jordanian currently serving as a shari‘a official with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Another is one ‘Abdallah ibn Ahmad al-Bun al-Husayni, a man of uncertain identity who describes himself as “one of Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s students.” His first efforts for Minbar were devoted to attacking, in a long refutation, three pro-Islamic State scholars: Turki al-Bin‘ali, Abu Khabab al-‘Iraqi, and ‘Umar Mahdi Zaydan, the former two being regular contributors to Ghuraba’. In large measure, this is a shari‘a council of war.

Ghuraba’, for its part, does not have an official shari‘a council but does host a coterie of regular contributors with essentially the same function. Among the more prominent of these writers are two Mauritanians (Abu ‘Ubayda al-Shinqiti and Abu Salama al-Shinqiti), an Iraqi (Abu Khabab al-‘Iraqi), a Moroccan (Zakariya’ Bu Gharara), a Sudanese (Musa‘id ibn Bashir, recently arrested), and several others of unidentifiable origin (Abu Mus‘ab al-Athari, ‘Ubayda al-Athbaji, Abu Bara’a al-Sayf, and “Ahlam al-Nasr,” described as “the Islamic State’s poetess,” among others).

Bin‘ali, a Bahraini now residing in the Islamic State, was also a prolific contributor to Ghuraba’ before his abrupt disengagement from the internet in July. His one-time ally Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, a Mauritanian (not to be confused with the other Mauritanian Shinqitis), is another story. Last summer he emerged after a months-long absence to announce his sudden opposition to the Islamic State after previously supporting it, becoming the subject of a heated exchange between Ghuraba’ and Minbar.

Mutual recriminations

The origin of this dispute was an open letter of support for the Islamic State issued by Ghuraba’ in February of last year (for the outfit’s own English translation, see here). Called “The Statement of Brotherhood in Faith for Support of the Islamic State,” it was signed by twenty jihadi shaykhs including Shinqiti, whose name came first. The letter called on all Sunni fighters in Iraq and Syria to give fealty (bay‘a) to the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—an implicit attack on al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra. The thrust of the statement certainly fit with Shinqiti’s pro-Islamic State views, which Ghuraba’ had previously published (see here, here, and here).

In mid-July, following the caliphate declaration, Shinqiti suddenly reversed his position, coming out with a fatwa denouncing the Islamic State’s caliphal claim and waxing critical of the group. (While he himself has not acknowledged any reversal, al-Maqdisi has made clear that Shinqiti indeed “reviewed his opinion and corrected his stance.”) In line with this development, Minbar issued a statement on its homepage in late July with the news that Shinqiti was disavowing Ghuraba’s “Statement of Brotherhood in Faith.” Controversially, Minbar furthermore claimed that Ghuraba’ never consulted Shinqiti as to including his name on the “Statement.”

The same day, Ghuraba’ responded with a series of tweets affirming that Shinqiti had indeed been consulted and accusing Minbar of lying. The Ghuraba’ administrator cast this dispute as part a greater contest between Minbar and Ghuraba’:

“It seems Maqdisi and his Minbar can no longer bear our undertaking to publish books and essays by scholars and shaykhs supporting the Islamic State…We in Ghuraba’ Media have opened our hearts and our foundation to the estranged (ghuraba’)* scholars and seekers of religious knowledge whom Maqdisi sought to silence and prevent from speaking the truth…Ghuraba’ Media has become a veritable alternative to Maqdisi’s Minbar, which for years has exercised a monopoly on media activity concerned with religious knowledge and shari‘a…”

The next day Minbar shot back, defending its reputation and integrity and explaining that Shinqiti himself had requested the disavowal. There followed a letter from Shinqiti, who restated his disavowal and attributed his five months of silence to “reasons of health and security.” Neither side has backed down in this dispute, continuing to accuse the other of lying.

Raging on

Over the next month Ghuraba’s unofficial shari‘a council came out with three short pieces (see here, here, and here) blasting Minbar and defending their foundation. One of these authors addressed Minbar thus: “Your battle with the Islamic State is surely a losing battle. So pick up your pens and ready your paper, for this is a battle that will endure, not expire…The Ghuraba’ Media Foundation has been and will remain the redoubtable fortress for defense of the truthful jihad warriors, as we deem them, of the Islamic State.” Indeed, this battle of pens has yet to let up. In late August one Minbar scholar put together a summa of the criticisms used to repudiate the Islamic State’s caliphate declaration; in mid-September a Ghuraba’ scholar responded with a point-by-point rebuttal.

It is worth remarking that Ghuraba’ is not the only media outfit of its kind. There is an array of jihadi media agencies on Twitter engaging in similar activities, including the Battar Media Foundation (@me_bttar), the Wafa’ Foundation for Media Production (@alwaf_aa), and the ‘A’isha Media Center (@MarkazAisha4), to name just a few. (It is all really too much to keep up with.) In August and September more than a dozen of these “foundations” and “centers” came together under the umbrella of “The Media Front In Support of the Islamic State,” an effort apparently interrupted by Twitter censorship. Ghuraba’ is not even the most prominent of these outfits, but it is by far the most significant in terms of rivaling the vaunted Minbar.

The civil war on display here between Ghuraba and Minbar is a microcosm of the greater jihadi civil war raging across the world and particularly in the greater Middle East. If jihadi ideologues and media are any measure of the state of affairs, it is a conflict that is set to endure—the long war beset with a long war of its own.


[*] The word ghuraba’, as in the media outlet’s name, means “estranged ones” or “strangers.” It derives significance from the following statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that is popular among Salafi Muslims: “Islam began as a stranger and will return as a stranger as it began, so blessed be the strangers.”

With the formal disavowal of the Islamic State by al-Qa`ida last February, the two groups have vied with each other for leadership of the global jihad. Combining military victories with an effective use of social media, the Islamic State has been able to gain  traction among both grassroots sympathizers and militant outfits. This has led to the emergence of a number of splinter factions that left their original groups to align with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces. These defections have been witnessed not only among al-Qa`ida’s affiliates but by the al-Qa`ida mothership itself in Waziristan. In light of this relative but noteworthy reshaping, some people have raised the question of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s ability to maintain loyalty among his subsidiaries or even a future union between his group and al-Baghdadi’s.

While it is too early to determine who will eventually call the shots, a telling audio message recently released by Abu Dujana al-Basha, a high-ranking al-Qa`ida leader, hints at where the organization currently stands on a rapprochement with the Islamic State.

Who is Abu Dujana al-Basha?

Owing to the demise of the historical leadership of al-Qa`ida over the past ten years, the organization has witnessed the rise of more recently arrived, yet seasoned figures in its top hierarchy. Among these has been Abu Dujana al-Basha, also known as Abu Dujana al-Misri, one of the most senior al-Qa`ida leaders today. Named as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in mid-January 2009, al-Basha has nevertheless a long history in jihadi militancy.

Born Muhammad bin Mahmud al-Bahtiti in al-Sharqiyya, Egypt, al-Basha initially belonged to the cluster of cadres around Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Egyptian Islamic al-Jihad group (EIJ). During the first half of the 1980s, he traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. Al-Basha operated with Jalaluddin Haqqani’s mujahidin in southeastern Afghanistan, though his dogmatism led to strained relations with his local counterparts. Part of his activity entailed giving religiously-oriented lessons to trainees. For example, Fadil Harun relates that when he attended al-Qa`ida’s al-Faruq camp in Khost, Afghanistan, he was lectured by al-Basha on “the history of the Prophet Muhammad” and the early Islamic battles.

However, it appears that al-Basha was mainly involved in military action and training. During combat in Gardez, Afghanistan, Harun remembers, he and “Shaykh Abu Dujana al-Misri” closely worked together in the monitoring of the enemy lines near the city. This lends credence to the U.S. authorities’ claim that al-Basha penned “a book on security that was used as a template for al Qaida’s surveillance operations”. Also, al-Basha played a substantial role in the “Tajikistan Project” headed by Abu al-Walid al-Misri at al-Faruq, which consisted of training members of the Tajik Islamist party al-Nahda. Despite the EIJ refusing to participate in these efforts, al-Basha became one its “stars”, in Abu al-Walid’s words, as both an instructor and military commander. It was at that time that Abu Dujana came to be known as “al-Basha” (the Pasha), a rank given to him by his comrades as a private joke.

In the first half of the 1990s, al-Basha relocated to Sudan along with the EIJ. Based on Harun’s memoirs, al-Basha settled in Khartum together with other fellow Arab-Afghans, including al-Qa`ida members such as Sayf al-`Adl, the organization’s then head of security. Al-Basha seems to have operated in the Sudanese capital until at least late 1997. Indeed, when al-Gama`a al-Islamiyya attacked tourists in Luxor in November 1997, Khartum-based jihadis debated the lawfulness of this operation and, Harun contends, al-Basha was “strongly opposed” to it. Yet, it should be noted that al-Basha is said to have been involved in the Egyptian Embassy bombing in Islamabad in 1995.

After his Sudanese interlude, al-Basha moved to Afghanistan, joining the few remaining personnel in al-Zawahiri’s group. Evoking the EIJ’s staff in Afghanistan, the Jordanian militant Shadi `Abdallah described al-Basha as one of its main figures, adding that he wore a prosthesis after he had a foot amputated. Around 1999-2000, al-Basha cemented his ties with al-Zawahiri by becoming his son-in-law, having married Umayma, the daughter al-Zawahiri had with `Azza bin Nuwayr (Umm Muhammad), his first wife. Though depicted as a “trusted aide to [al-Zawahiri]”, it is noticeable that al-Basha differed from his amir’s plan to align EIJ’s national-revolutionary agenda with al-Qa`ida’s global ambitions. According to `Abdallah, al-Basha was part of the EIJ’s faction which broke away from al-Zawahiri when the latter formally joined al-Qa`ida in mid-2001. This means that al-Basha only rallied to Usama bin Ladin’s group during the post-2001 period.

In the aftermath of the Taliban downfall in late 2001, al-Basha is reported to have acted as the caretaker of al-Zawahiri’s family and settled with it in Iran, before being arrested by Iranian authorities in 2003. Over the past few years, al-Basha began surfacing publicly by authoring a number of audio messages and writings via major jihadi media outlets, mostly al-Qa`ida’s. His work comprises theologically-oriented releases such as his paper “The Institution of Shari`a is a Shari`a Obligation and a Realistic Necessity” for al-Qa`ida’s magazine Tala`i’ Khurasan or his “Summary of Sahih al-Bukhari” published by the organization’s media department al-Sahab in September 2013. As to topical issues, al-Basha wrote down some interesting “Reflections on the Term al-Salafiyya al-Jihadiyya” in 2012 and also discussed the crackdown against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in December 2013.

Amending the Path of Jihad in Syria

Abu Dujana al-Basha is said to have anticipated the onset of the Syrian conflict. Indeed, when recalling discussions on the “Arab Spring” in al-Qa`ida, `Azzam al-Amriki (Adam Gadahn), a major al-Sahab’s figure, claims that al-Basha portended that Syria would follow the Libyan uprising. “I recall that I was with one of the noble brothers, Shaykh Abu Dujana al-Basha”, al-Amriki recounts, “and [he] predicted […] without hesitation that the next stop for the revolutionary express would be Syria”.

If al-Basha had been hopeful for the future of the jihadist project in Syria, his hope gave way to uneasiness in the light of the infighting among militant groups in Syria. This was first reflected by his “’Message from the Opening of Khurasan to the Opening of al-Sham” which he penned in January 2014. Unsurprisingly, his missive conveys an aspect of “love and support” for the Syria-based fighters. For instance, al-Basha opens his missive by emphatically stating that “it would be not exaggerated to say that we feel that our bodies and hearts here in Khurasan hang with you in the Levant”.

Of greater importance it his advice (nasiha) for the Levantine militant spectrum aimed at preventing further dissensions. The Egyptian jihadi veteran emphasizes the concept of “jama`a” (group) and the danger of internal division, using Qur`anic verses and hadiths to support his argument. Acting as one unified body, al-Basha explains, is not only mandatory from an Islamic perspective but would also allow the mujahidin to achieve victory, no matter the hardships. Al-Basha thus bemoans the Syrian strife and urges his mujahidin brethren to uphold the sanctity of the Muslim blood, further outlining the dire consequences of those transgressing this ruling.

On September 26, 2014, al-Basha released “This Is our Message”, focusing yet again on the militant Syrian arena. In it, the Egyptian outlines the plight that has befallen the umma, with “the nations of disbelief and parties of apostasy […] inflicting its population with humiliation”. Faced with such circumstances, al-Basha continues, the only course of action to “cure the disease” lies in taking arms against the “oppressors”, be they from the “crusaders” or the “Nusayris”. He goes on to call to “the rejection of false gods, and disassociation from polytheism” and “the judgment of the Sharia”. Al-Basha warns that, unless this individual duty is performed, “[the umma] will be overcome by weakness [and] humiliation”.

Of greater importance in the message is al-Basha’s concerns regarding the threat of what he terms as “people of excess” (ahl al-ghuluw). The al-Qa`ida leader charges them with having “declared the worshipers as disbelievers …and undermined the jihad and distorted the message of the mujahidin”. Although the Islamic State is never mentioned, it is clear that the “extremists” al-Basha refers to pertain to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s loyalists. Among the most explicit references is al-Basha’s rant against “the caliphate on the path of deviation and lies and violations of treaties and breaking of pledges”. Similarly, al-Basha admonishes this “deviant” caliphate “built on oppression, takfir, killing the people of tawhid and splitting the rows of the mujahidin”. Finally, al-Basha  highlights the continuity in al-Qaida’s philosophy, declaring that “your mujahidin brothers in Khurasan … have not changed nor turned” despite “the injustice of slander, fabrications, distortions and lies”. This line reads as a response to the allegations spread by the the pro-Islamic State’s camp that the current leadership of al-Qa`ida no longer acts upon Bin Ladin’s program.

With the spread of the Islamic State’s virulent ideology and the broader discord in Syria, al-Basha considers that the Levantine cause has deviated from its “righteous path”, tarnishing the image of the global jihad movement. As a consequence, he offers guidance to “rescue the boat of jihad in Syria”. He notably exhorts militants groups “to strive to rectify what has been corrupted” and “to repel every form of perversion”. He also calls on the “people of knowledge and expertise”, namely veterans with a long jihadi experience, to “clarify to the umma and to the mujahidin the correct way […] in the various issues of disputes”. Conversely, he warns his audience against the “greatly ignorant” behind the “increase in issuance of verdicts [declaring] the Muslims as unbelievers, rather the best of the mujahidin”. This likely alludes to the pro-Islamic State ideologues often decried by al-Qa`ida’s supporters as lacking experience and religious knowledge.

Bad Timing?

Though the schism between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State is nothing new, Abu Dujana al-Basha’s latest release is still worthwhile noting if properly contextualized.

Among all al-Qa`ida’s statements addressing ISIS in 2014, only two really stand out in terms of open hostility towards ISIS’s conduct. These two were both related to the assassination of Abu Khalid al-Suri in February 2014. The first was in late March when `Azzam al-Amriki blamed al-Suri’s murder on ISIS, which he accused of “excess” (ghuluw) and “extremism” (tashaddud). The second quickly followed with Ayman al-Zawahiri drawing a parallel between the Khawarij who had stabbed `Ali and their “grand-children … in the Levant” responsible for al-Suri’s demise, a veiled reference to ISIS. While this period has witnessed the publication of other critical statements, overall, it was al-Suri’s murder which elicited the organization’s most corrosive comments against ISIS.

The caliphate’s foundation in late June 2014 saw a reorientation in al-Qa`ida’s media strategy, with a less straightforward approach to this new challenge. Instead of bluntly rejecting the Islamic State’s unilateralism, al-Zawahiri’s outfit chose to confront its powerful rival more obliquely. As a result, al-Qa`ida stressed its continuing loyalty to the Taliban leader Mullah `Umar, hence notifying Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that, despite his caliphal pretension, he would not hold sway over his elders in jihad. This message was passed through both new materials, like al-Qa`ida’s newsletter al-Nafir and old archives, like a 2001 speech by Bin Ladin explaining the nature of his oath to Mullah `Umar.

With that in mind, al-Basha’s latest speech deserves attention. It is the first al-Qa`ida message to rebuff the Islamic State’s caliphate since its founding. Al-Qa`ida had not even responded to Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s message in May taunting Ayman al-Zawahiri. On that note, it is most likely that al-Basha was alluding to this when he stated that the “Shaykh [Ayman al-Zawahiri] had ordered his brothers to remain silent and to not respond over his honour”. Al-Basha’s audio message is arguably one of the most aggressive that al-Qa`ida has released in its conflict with the Islamic State, in line with the two above-mentioned statements eulogizing Abu Khalid al-Suri.

The rationale for releasing al-Basha’s tape is worthwhile discussing. Judging by al-Basha’s words, there might have been a sense of growing frustration among al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership, unsatisfied with al-Zawahiri’s directive to stay quiet. Besides, this sentiment has been echoed in the broader militant milieu, including by al-Qa`ida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. In late August, the latter’s former general shar`i (legal) official, Abu Mariyya al-Qahtani, authored an open letter to al-Zawahiri complaining about al-Qa`ida’s lack of a clear position against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s bold move. This long silence, in al-Qahtani’s view, has bolstered the Islamic State while it perpetuated its “injustice and crimes” in Syria. Perhaps al-Basha was referring to these objections when, while explaining the reason for this silence, he mentioned “those who love us have blamed us by them thinking that we have betrayed our Shaykh [al-Zawahiri]”.

Still, one would wonder why al-Zawahiri eventually allowed one of his top aides to speak out against al-Baghdadi’s caliphate now. Indeed, the release occurred while the U.S.-led military coalition began its airstrikes against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq. While the Western-backed offensive did not resolve the core factors driving the strife in the region, it at least prompted a vast array of condemnations from militant groups operating in the region and beyond, including al-Qa`ida affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. In this perspective, al-Qa`ida may have been preoccupied by its competition with the Islamic State for leadership of the global jihad.

In any case, the audio message fueled hostility between the proponents and opponents of al-Qa`ida. The well-known English-speaking Islamic State’s sympathizer Shami Witness, for instance, scolded al-Basha’s speech as “the worst [al-Qa`ida] message till date”, ending his comment by the following: “May Allaah give these partisan tandhim [organization] scum what they deserve”. It is clear that the issue was not only related to al-Basha’s strongly-worded tone, but also because his speech was released in a time of increasing adversity. As Shami Witness rhetorically asked, “So al Qaeda chooses NOW to continue with its BS partisan politics […]?” Pro-al-Qa`ida’s supporters tried to downplay this criticism notably by remarking that Abu Muhammad al-Adnani had attacked al-Qa`ida “while [the group has] been bombed by the US and much larger coalition then now since 2001!!”

Whether Abu Dujana al-Basha’s audio message marks the beginning of a prolonged media campaign by al-Qa`ida aimed at countering the Islamic State’s influence remains to be seen. More certain is that by coming out yet again against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate, al-Qa`ida has signified that unity in the jihadist ranks would not come at any price, even in the face of an international military campaign. Unless the Islamic State reforms its stringent policies and returns to the fold, al-Qa`ida implies, any talk of reconciliation would equate to a chimera. This latest rant serves also as a reminder of how deeply entrenched the rupture with its former Iraqi affiliate is among al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership.

If the Bahraini jihadi ideologue Turki al-Bin`ali personifies “the caliphate’s scholar-in-arms” for the Islamic State, one would find difficult to name a similar leading figure in al-Qa`ida’s ranks. Indeed, although most of the senior jihadi scholars sided with Ayman al-Zawahiri in his conflict with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, none of them actually belong to the organization. While the senior scholars certainly have longstanding ties to both al-Qa`ida’s leaders and rank and file and have been instrumental in furthering its agenda and that of its affiliates, they all remain independent from al-Zawahiri’s command.

With that said, al-Qa`ida has long strived to promote religious scholars in its ranks, such as Abu Yahya al-Libi and `Atiyyatullah al-Libi, who proved to be major influences in the militant landscape and in jihadi sympathizers’ circles. However, a sustained U.S. drone strikes campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas removed these well-known heavyweights.

Over the remaining ideologues, the Palestinian Abu al-Walid al-Ghazi al-Ansari, also known as Abu al-Walid al-Filistini, represents the closest thing to a formal al-Qa`ida scholar today.

Read the rest of this entry »

The recent beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the British aid worker David Haines by the Islamic State (IS) have been the subject of much media attention. Some of this attention has focussed on the question of whether IS is actually “Islamic” or not. World leaders like the American President Barack Obama and the British Prime Minister David Cameron have weighed in on this question by stating, respectively, that “[IS] is not Islamic” and “they are not Muslims; they are monsters”. The shock of seeing one’s countrymen being beheaded, Obama and Cameron’s wish to distinguish between the Islamic State and Islam as a religion and the fact that it is Muslims themselves who are often the victims of IS’s policies make such statements seem obvious. Still, one may wonder whether the question “Is IS Islamic?” is really one that non-Muslim politicians such as Obama and Cameron should answer. Although their reasons for doing so may be admirable, one could argue that the problem of whether IS is Islamic is fundamentally one for Muslims themselves to solve.

In any case, Muslims have spoken out frequently and clearly against IS and, more specifically, against the recent beheadings. To give a few examples: a group of Salafi scholars from Britain called on IS to release the British aid worker Alan Henning – who may be the next person IS is going to behead – just a few days ago and the famous Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen has similarly condemned IS’s beheadings in no uncertain terms. Such statements – and many others – would suggest that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are against IS and their beheadings of journalists and aid workers, which is most probably true. Yet how about radical Islamic scholars? Doesn’t their method of interpreting the Qur’an dictate that they should not only take the scripture literally when there is talk of cutting off people’s heads (e.g., Q. 8: 12), but also view such verses as applicable in this day and age against the people they frequently refer to as “the enemies of Islam”? This post looks at three relevant statements and writings by radical Islamic ideologues on the legitimacy of abducting and beheading James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines and (potentially) Alan Henning.


The first radical Islamic scholar who spoke out clearly against the beheadings was the Jordanian Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who is still in prison at the time of writing and limited his comments on this issue to statements to the press. He rejected IS as “Khawarij” and described them as “a bubble that will end soon” and also specifically condemned “the killing and slaughtering (al-qatl wa-l-dhabh) of the [American] journalists”. The reason of his being against this is that journalists are messengers, Abu Qatada states (here, here, here and here), and as such – he appears to imply – they should not be treated as combatants who should be killed, let alone slaughtered the way they were.

Interestingly, Abu Qatada does not state that the members of IS are non-Muslims. While he makes it crystal clear that he disagrees with IS’s policies and has done so for quite some time, he does not apply excommunication (takfir) to them. In fact, despite his severe criticism of IS, Abu Qatada simultaneously speaks out against the international coalition that is being built against IS, stating that “I am not in favour of an alliance against any Muslim. It is not allowed to agree with the alliance [against IS].” This seems to be an expression of the concept of al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal, see here, here, here, here and here for more on this topic), which dictates that one should have absolute allegiance to fellow Muslims and disassociate from non-Muslims. It also shows that Abu Qatada, in spite of his rejection of IS and its beheadings of journalists, cannot be counted on as a cheerleader for international action against that organisation.

Aid workers

A similar conclusion is reached by Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, another Jordanian radical Islamic ideologue who has often spoken out against IS but who, in his latest writing, also concludes that IS “is still in the ship of the Muslim community. It has not left it, despite its [own] striving to expel many Muslims from [the Muslim community through takfir].” The reason for al-Maqdisi’s latest article is not, however, to criticise the international anti-IS coalition, but to refute the idea that abducting and killing aid workers is Islamically legitimate. While David Haines had not been killed yet when Abu Qatada made his statements, al-Maqdisi focuses entirely on him and other aid workers.

Al-Maqdisi states that, in general, non-Muslims who enter Muslim lands to engage in charitable activities are not spies and should be treated as musta’minun (people who request and are given aman, an assurance of protection). As such, these aid workers should be protected and respected, al-Maqdisi writes, just as the Prophet Muhammad did with polytheists who helped him. Instead of abducting and killing them, al-Maqdisi states that they should be thanked for their help, citing a hadith stating that “he who does not thank people does not thank God”.

This is not the first time al-Maqdisi has defended aid workers. In an additional chapter for his book Waqfat ma’a Thamarat al-Jihad, written specifically after the bombing of the Baghdad headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2003, he defends that organisation as truly humanitarian, respectful of Muslims and as having helped him personally by getting him books and magazines while he was in prison. He also condemns abducting or killing aid workers in that chapter and he does so again in his latest article with regard to David Haines and Alan Henning. Al-Maqdisi stresses that both men’s British nationality is quite irrelevant to this issue. While he states that “Britain has killed thousands of Muslims and has oppressed milions of them by its planting of the Jewish entity in the heart of the Muslim land”, the important thing here is that – referring to Alan Henning – “this British man came voluntarily with a charity organisation on which Muslims depend”. Jihadis, he claims, should distinguish between people instead of sullying jihad by killing everyone.

Call for release

Interestingly, al-Maqdisi writes that Qatada, Abu Qatada’s son, told him that his father had written to IS eight months ago to tell them to release Alan Henning, but that IS denied having abducted him at the time. Al-Maqdisi therefore admits to having been surprised when he saw Alan Henning as a hostage in one of IS’s videos. If this story is true, this appears to mean either that IS lied to Abu Qatada about this or captured Henning after Abu Qatada demanded his release. In any case, al-Maqdisi seconds his fellow scholar’s sentiment by calling for the release of Alan Henning and aid workers in general.

It is doubtful whether IS will heed al-Maqdisi’s call to release Henning, although there seems to be a precedent here. It was recently reported in the Jordanian press that al-Maqdisi had directly requested the mufti of Syrian al-Qa’ida-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) to release over 40 UN peacekeepers they had captured, which actually happened, as JN’s mufti, Sami al-‘Uraydi, stated in a video message. Importantly, however, al-Maqdisi ideologically supports JN, has spoken highly of the group’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, and is personally very close to fellow Jordanian Sami al-‘Uraydi. Since none of this applies to IS or its leadership – although al-Maqdisi used to be on very good terms with Abu Humam Bakr b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Athari, “the caliphate’s scholar in arms” – his calls for releasing hostages is less likely to have the same effect on IS as it had on JN.


Perhaps the most important contribution to the debate on the (il)legitimacy of the recent beheading of Western captives (and certainly the most interesting) was written by Abu Mahmud al-Filastini, a lesser-known radical shaykh than the previous two mentioned. In a recent article, al-Filastini starts with a long citation from al-Maqdisi, but then moves on to give a much more comprehensive treatment of the permissibility of “slaughtering” someone than Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi did. He starts his argument by stating that God has sent mercy (rahma) to people and that this idea does not square with ferocity in dealing with “the criminal enemies of God”. Even in killing, one should treat one’s enemies well, al-Filastini writes. The fact that some groups – he doesn’t mention names, but it’s clear who he’s talking about – do not apply this principle, al-Filastini writes, shows how little they understand. They act as if it is recommended or even compulsory to slaughter enemies, he states, while there is no evidence in the Qur’an that one should kill people by slaughtering them. Moreover, they also sully the image of jihad.

Al-Filastini writes that the classical Islamic scholarly rulings on slaughtering, which he seems to equate with killing someone in an unnecessarily painful way, or beheading someone range from “forbidden” (haram) and “reprehensible” (makruh) to allowed under certain conditions. No classical scholars, however, consider either slaughtering or beheading part of the Prophet’s Sunna. He goes on to list nearly universal scholarly condemnations of such practices and related acts, such as hurling away enemies’ heads through the use of mangonels.

The author then goes on to refute the arguments in favour of slaughtering and beheading. He cites verses from the Qur’an in which the believers are called upon to (in Arberry’s translation) “smite above the necks” (fa-dribu fawqa l-a’naq, Q. 8: 12) or to “smite their necks” (darb al-riqab, Q. 47: 4). Although such verses seem to justify what IS did to the Western captives they beheaded, al-Filastini points out that beheading people was simply the way people fought in the days of the companions of the Prophet because it was the easiest way to kill someone and the least painful method for the person being killed. This differs sharply from “acts of slaughter” like “the cutting of the neck and the prolonging of dying [as applied to the Western hostages]”, al-Filastini writes. He emphasises that there was no torture involved in the two verses mentioned above and that the word used in the Qur’an is “to smite” (daraba), not “to slaughter” (dhabaha). As such, the beheadings called for in the Qur’an cannot be compared with what we see today.

All hadiths presented as counter evidence supposedly proving that slaughtering is allowed are dismissed by al-Filastini as weak and unauthentic. As such, the author concludes, like Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi before him, that the beheadings the world has witnessed in the past few months were not only damaging to the image of jihad but also contrary to the rulings of Islam. To be sure, none of the scholars cited goes so far as to label IS “not Islamic” or to refer to the group’s members as “monsters”, as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron did, but taking into consideration that these are radical scholars who support al-Qa’ida, this is about as explicit a condemnation of the recent beheadings as one is likely to get from these ideologues.

The policies of the Islamic State (IS) have already led to some fierce debates and scholarly disputes among radical Islamic ideologues. This post looks at one of these disputes that is interesting for various reasons, one of them being that it takes place not between proponents and opponents of IS, but between two men who are both critics of IS.

Regular readers of Jihadica will recall that one of the latest developments in the discussions surrounding the Islamic State, as Cole Bunzel recently pointed out, is the Mauritanian scholar Abu l-Mundhir al-Shinqiti’s reversal on IS. Whereas al-Shinqiti used to be a strong supporter of what was then still called the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), the latter’s announcement of the caliphate apparently caused him to switch sides.

As Cole pointed out, there were some doubts about the authenticity of al-Shinqiti’s critical book of the caliphate. These doubts seemed to fade, however, when the Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, the website that belongs to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and whose Shari’a Council‘s question and answer forum was once more or less dominated by al-Shinqiti, published a communiqué on his behalf, stating that another book had falsely been attributed to him. The communiqué also included words from al-Shinqiti, claiming that he had requested the Minbar to publish this message himself.

This renewed connection between the Minbar and al-Shinqiti, who had not issued a fatwa on the Shari’a Council’s behalf since he strongly came out in favour of ISIS – which al-Maqdisi opposed – in 2013, was confirmed in mid-August of this year, when the Minbar issued another communiqué. This time, the Minbar openly stated that al-Shinqiti “will return to answering questions” on behalf of its Shari’a Council “soon, with God’s permission”. The communiqué even went so far as to ask another IS-affiliated ideologue and former member of the Council, the Bahreini Abu Bakr Humam b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Athari, to rejoin them. While the latter has not actually done so, al-Shinqiti’s latest writings can now indeed be found on the Minbar again.

Minbar, minbar on the wall…

So far, so good, one might say if one took a radical Islamist perspective. Not so. Long-time critic of ISIS/IS Abu Basir al-Tartusi, whose views on the group can be seen here and here, is highly critical of this reconciliation between al-Shinqiti and the Minbar. In a recently released communiqué, Abu Basir wonders how al-Maqdisi’s often-expressed “warning against extremism and extremists” (see here, for example) can be reconciled with his website’s renewed acceptance of scholars such as al-Shinqiti and perhaps al-Athari too. How can the Minbar be represented by men who support the Islamic State? The Minbar – whether al-Maqdisi is still in control of it or not – cannot accept this, Abu Basir states.

The subjects of Abu Basir’s ire, the Minbar and al-Maqdisi, kept quiet for some time after this. The latter did, however, publish a letter addressed directly to mujahidun in Syria, in which – “without looking at the faction that you have pledged fealty to or have joined” – he warns fighters against excesses and extremism. Instead, he calls on them to keep jihad pure by not straying into any kind of deviance and says he feels compelled to speak out on this. None of this is particularly strange coming from al-Maqdisi and you might think that especially his emphasis on the purity of jihad should not be controversial with generally like-minded ideologues such as Abu Basir. Well, think again.

…who’s the purest of them all?

In late August, Abu Basir published “remarks” about al-Maqdisi’s letter. Although this is not the first time the two men engaged in an ideological debate – see here for an analysis of their discussion of ignorance as an excuse for committing acts of unbelief – the tone is somewhat harsher this time. Abu Basir seems to make an effort to portray himself as more nuanced in his ideas than al-Maqdisi. In what amounts to a doctrinal purity contest, Abu Basir criticises al-Maqdisi for the latter’s statement that he and his books are “among the most prominent” and “the most famous” in Jihadi-Salafism. If this is true, Abu Basir asks, where does this leave the first three generations of Islam (the pious predecessors (al-salaf al-salih)) and the works of mediaeval scholars like Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya and others?

Abu Basir further scolds al-Maqdisi for not naming the jihadi factions he criticises in his letter. “Who are these factions that fight in Syria?”, Abu Basir asks, wondering whether al-Maqdisi sees them as unbelievers or not. Al-Maqdisi’s unwillingness to name these groups, Abu Basir claims, will only confuse the young men in Syria, leading them to excommunicate whoever they wish and ascribe their verdicts to him. This is obviously a stinging attack from Abu Basir on al-Maqdisi, knowing that the latter has often warned against the casual use of excommunication (takfir) and that such behaviour is one of the main reasons that caused al-Maqdisi to speak out against some jihadis.

This line of thinking is taken even further by Abu Basir when he cites al-Maqdisi’s words about there being “deviance” among “most of the fighting factions in Syria today”. Abu Basir wonders who these factions might be and asks whether al-Maqdisi, who apparently sees deviance among most groups in Syria, isn’t doing exactly what “extremists” are doing too, namely criticising others for their doctrinal impurity. He states that al-Maqdisi’s words can only be explained in two ways: al-Maqdisi believes that the “deviance” he discerns among fighting factions is either less serious than unbelief (kufr) or equal to unbelief. In the first case, there is no reason to warn Muslims against them, while in the second case al-Maqdisi is applying takfir to them, which – again – is precisely what the “extremists” against whom al-Maqdisi warns do so often. In effect, Abu Basir is thus suggesting that al-Maqdisi is expressing sentiments that are just as extreme as those of his ideological enemies. Given Abu Basir’s earlier criticism of the Minbar’s re-acceptance of al-Shinqiti, this may well have been intended as an attempt to show how the Minbar and its owner are slowly but surely being drawn into IS’s supposedly extremist camp.

Al-Maqdisi responds

Although al-Maqdisi did not respond to Abu Basir’s earlier criticism of the Minbar’s decision to allow al-Shinqiti back on its Shari’a Council, he did respond to al-Tartusi’s latest critique. In his “Remarks about the remarks of shaykh Abu Basir”, he dismisses his detractor’s words suggesting that he sees himself as greater than Ibn Taymiyya and others. “I’m [merely] talking about the modern trend [of Jihadi-Salafism] in which I and my books have played a prominent role”, al-Maqdisi states, “which even my enemies do not deny”. Al-Maqdisi repeatedly expresses amazement at what he sees as Abu Basir’s apparent unwillingness to understand his choice of words. He lists several issues on which he slightly disagrees with Abu Basir and wonders whether al-Tartusi wants to discuss all of these in detail as well.

Al-Maqdisi’s amazement increases as his letter goes on to the question of fighting factions in Syria. “I’m really astonished about you, Abu Basir”, he writes. “Do you only know, see or believe the perversions of IS and the extremists in religion?” Al-Maqdisi goes on to list several secular factions in Syria that supposedly cooperate with “apostate” regimes. “If these are good to you and deserve respect and support, what purity of method has remained with you and what purity of banner has been left with you!??” Al-Maqdisi further states that he acknowledges that many fighters are good people and that he does not apply takfir to the majority of them at all.

The core of Abu Basir’s problem, al-Maqdisi claims, is that he doesn’t see the positive intentions in his writings. Al-Maqdisi seems to understand Abu Basir’s appartent attempt to portray him as an “extremist” and links this issue to al-Tartusi’s earlier criticism of the Minbar’s decision to allow al-Shinqiti back on the Shari’a Council. “Despite the fact that Abu l-Mundhir [al-Shinqiti] has retracted his words and has corrected his position [on IS], Abu Basir insists on tarnishing him as a Khariji [extremist].” Al-Shinqiti, al-Maqdisi states, has rejected IS and has withdrawn his support for them after he saw what they did. “Is is fair to continue to defame him in spite of this??”, al-Maqdisi asks, only to add sarcastically, “oh, you who writes about good manners of criticism and advice in Islam!!”

Brothers slugging it out

Although both men end their criticism with brotherly words, it is clear that they annoy each other with their statements and actions. This may well continue, since al-Maqdisi penned two more letters related to IS just a few days ago. One of them is “Advice to the Sensible Ones among the Supporters of ISIS”, in which he calls on them to refrain from excessive violence and takfir and focus on the real enemy instead. In the other, al-Maqdisi goes so far as to criticise shaykh Sa’d al-Shithri for the latter’s “extreme” criticism of IS. While al-Maqdisi acknowledges that IS has made many mistakes, he refuses to go so far as to label IS “apostate” and “unbelieving” and to state that they are “greater in unbelief than the Jews, than the Christians and, in fact, than the polytheists”, as al-Shithri apparently stated.

This continued advice to stay away from “extremism”, the willingness to appeal to “the good guys” among IS’s supporters and the rejection of excessive criticism are all vintage al-Maqdisi. To Abu Basir, however, they may be further proof that al-Maqdisi and the Minbar are starting to lose their marbles. Being as it is, one can already conclude that the subject of IS has not only divided radical Islamists but has apparently even divided some of the group’s opponents. This can only increase if this dispute escalates even further.

On 16 June, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the well-known Jordanian radical Islamic ideologue, was released from prison. In the six weeks since his release, many people have argued that there must have been some sort of deal between al-Maqdisi and the Jordanian regime that caused the latter to release him. This blog post looks into these claims.

A Secret Deal

The idea that al-Maqdisi has made a secret deal with the Jordanian regime is widespread. On Twitter, for example, several people expressed their suspicion about al-Maqdisi’s release, claiming that its timing amidst the turmoil involving the Islamic State (of Iraq and Sham, IS(IS)) could not have been a coincidence. Similarly, The Economist stated that al-Maqdisi was released only after “he had been persuaded to issue two fatwas declaring followers of ISIS as ‘deviants’ and telling them not to make attacks in Jordan”. The connection between al-Maqdisi’s release and his criticism of ISIS/IS as a reason for his being set free was also pointed out in the Jordanian media. ‘Umar ‘Ayasira, for instance, a regular columnist for the Islamist daily Al-Sabil, questioned the timing of al-Maqdisi’s release. Although he explicitly denies that al-Maqdisi made a deal with the authorities, he does claim that the shaykh’s critical views on the Islamic State serve the interests of the Jordanian government, which is concerned about that organisation’s rise in Syria and Iraq and therefore supposedly allowed al-Maqdisi to leave prison.

The latter closely resembles a general scenario I also suggested once. Writing in 2008 (after al-Maqdisi was released from a previous stay in prison), I stated that “Al-Maqdisi’s criticism […] could […] have a moderating influence on those committed terrorists who are unlikely to be swayed by anyone else. In practice, this policy would mean allowing al-Maqdisi to spread his ideas without interfering with him too much as long as he does not materially support terrorism. The drawback of such a policy is that, while possibly helping to moderate an extremely violent fringe among jihadists, al-Maqdisi’s still radical writings might simultaneously inspire a whole generation of new terrorists. Considering the fact that the Jordanian government apparently does not have a viable case to keep al-Maqdisi in prison, however, this policy of non-interference may be less unacceptable than it sounds.”


Scenarios like these and rumours of a deal with the authorities beg the question: what is the evidence for this after al-Maqdisi’s latest release? I asked one person on Twitter who was convinced of a deal whether she had any proof of her suspicions or was simply extrapolating from other, seemingly similar cases in other contexts. Her answer was that she did not have any specific evidence at all and was simply drawing parallels with other cases that she had seen before. This is quite honest, of course, but it is typical of those who claim that al-Maqdisi made a deal with the Jordanian regime: they offer no proof whatsoever.

To be sure, a healthy dose of scepticism towards what goes on in Jordanian prisons and how this is related to the country’s politics is perhaps quite justified. This scepticism becomes slightly conspiratorial, however, if one keeps suspecting fire without even a hint of smoke. When I asked al-Maqdisi about this when I talked to him a few weeks ago, he obviously denied it, yet not by adamantly rejecting these claims; he simply shook his head in disbelief, disappointed about people’s willingness to believe such rumours. It is indeed unlikely that al-Maqdisi made a deal with the authorities, but we don’t have to take his word for it.

Criticism of ISIS/IS

One thing that most claims about al-Maqdisi’s alleged deal with the authorities mention is his criticism of ISIS/IS. Since the latter organisation may develop into a threat to Jordanian security because of the relatively large number of ISIS/IS-supporters within the kingdom, the idea is that al-Maqdisi’s release might contribute to keeping the Islamic State at bay and to moderating its adherents within Jordanian borders. Such an idea is certainly not entirely absurd and al-Maqdisi has indeed penned a few anti-IS articles since being released (see here and here) – widely reported in the Jordanian press (see here, here, here and here) – and did speak out against its supporters after the Jordanian radical thinker Iyad Qunaybi was attacked.

The problem with this reasoning, however, is that the regime does not need a deal with al-Maqdisi to get him to speak out against the Islamic State. In fact, al-Maqdisi has expressed (increasingly explicit) criticism of some jihadis in Syria and particularly ISIS since at least late 2013, long before he was released. This criticism ranged from advice to keep jihad and da’wa (missionary activities) unified (see also here), urgent calls to stop infighting among jihadis (see also here) and to refrain from engaging in fitna (chaos, strife) and clearly siding with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to a clear disavowal of ISIS. In other words, al-Maqdisi’s condemnation of ISIS was part of a gradual process of advice he gave to jihadis in Syria, which in turn was not only rooted in his broader ideology but also – and more directly – influenced by the failure to successfully mediate between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS and his perception that the latter was mostly (if not entirely) to blame for this.


Yet if there was no deal, doesn’t that make the date of al-Maqdisi’s release – right in the middle of debates about ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra – rather suspicious? Similar claims were made about al-Maqdisi’s release from prison in 1999 and 2005. With regard to the former year, it has been suggested that al-Maqdisi wrote a book in which he criticised what he considered excesses in takfir (excommunication) to get a more lenient prison sentence. As for 2005, several Jordanian journalists at the time suggested that al-Maqdisi had revised his radical views and that his 2004 and 2005 criticism of the alleged excesses committed by his former student and leader of al-Qaida in Iraq Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi played a role in his release then. Both claims are incorrect, however, as I have pointed out in detail elsewhere.

So what could explain al-Maqdisi’s release last June? Just like in 1999 (a royal pardon on the occasion of King ‘Abdallah II’s ascension to the Jordanian throne) and in 2005 (the regime acquitted him of the charges and had to release him), the immediate reason for al-Maqdisi’s release on 16 June was rather less conspiratorial than it seems: he had simply served his time in prison. Al-Maqdisi was arrested in September 2010 and was given a five year prison sentence. In Jordan, years in prison are not twelve, but only nine months long, making his sentence (5 x 9 months =) 45 months, which equals four years (48 months) minus three months. If one adds four years to September 2010 (September 2014) and subsequently subtracts three months, one simply gets to a release date in: June 2014. The fact that the Jordanian regime actually stuck to this release date instead of trying to keep al-Maqdisi in gaol a bit longer may have been inspired by the idea that al-Maqdisi might help dissuade a few more ISIS-supporters once he’s out, but it is clearly not evidence of any deal.

To deal or not to deal

All in all, it thus seems highly unlikely that al-Maqdisi has made a deal with the Jordanian regime to get released earlier. Even if the regime is willing to release a known radical scholar like him in order to allow him to fend off even more radical ideologues and militants, it is unlikely that they released him any earlier than necessary because of this. Given the fact that al-Maqdisi’s time had been served, the regime probably felt obliged to let him go, perhaps hoping that his ideological opposition against ISIS – a much more dangerous and immediate threat to Jordan than Jabhat al-Nusra, which al-Maqdisi does support – would serve them well. Whether al-Maqdisi’s freedom is actually going to contribute to greater security and stability in Jordan, however, remains to be seen.

The Islamic State’s June 29 declaration of a caliphate has yet to win mass support among the global jihadi community but it has succeeded in provoking an embattled al-Qaeda leadership to respond—in unforeseen fashion. Rather than immediately denouncing the Islamic State’s new “caliphate” as one would have expected, al-Qaeda has responded in kind: that is, with the proposition of a counter-caliph of sorts.

The mooted quasi-caliph is none other than Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, head of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan since 1996. Like the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mullah ‘Umar holds the title amir al-mu’minin (commander of the believers), the traditional title of caliphs in Islamic history. The Afghan amir’s title has rarely seemed more than rhetorical but over the last week al-Qaeda has played up the ambiguity of the title. It has reaffirmed its loyalty to Mullah ‘Umar and distributed a video of Osama bin Laden describing him as essentially caliph. Naturally, Islamic State supporters are up in arms at the suggestion of a challenger to Baghdadi.

Old video, new newsletter

Two developments in mid-July have given the impression that al-Qaeda is attempting to recast Mullah ‘Umar as quasi-caliph. The first of these was the July 13 release by its official al-Sahab Media Foundation of an old video of Osama bin Laden. The poor-quality film, 70 minutes in duration, is from mid-June 2001, and shows Bin Laden delivering a lecture on the significance of a recent meeting between George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Al-Sahab gave no reason for releasing the video, but Islamic State supporters claim to have discovered the motive—to use Bin Laden to dispute Baghdadi’s claim to the caliphate.

In the question-and-answer session following Bin Laden’s lecture, a questioner asks the al-Qaeda leader to clarify the nature of his bay‘a to Taliban leader Mullah ‘Umar. Bay‘a is the traditional Islamic contract of agreement between ruler and ruled, and it is widely known that al-Qaeda members operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area give bay’a to him. Exactly what the terms of the bay’a are is less certain. The questioner inquires into them: “You have remarked that you gave bay‘a to the Commander of the Believers Mullah ‘Umar. Is this bay’a the supreme bay‘a, or is it [merely] a temporary bay’a leading toward the supreme bay‘a?”

The term “supreme bay’a” (al-bay’a al-‘uzma) here relates to the “supreme imamate” (al-imama al-‘uzma), a synonym for the caliphate. The questioner is thus asking Bin Laden if he has a contract of allegiance to Mullah ‘Umar as putative caliph. His answer is an emphatic yes.

Bin Laden says: “Our bay’a to the commander of the believers is a supreme bay’a. It is founded on Qur’anic prooftexts and prophetic hadith…” After citing scripture, he continues: “It is incumbent upon every Muslim to affirm in his heart that he has given bay’a to the Commander of the Believers Mullah ‘Umar. This is the supreme bay’a.” Although Bin Laden does not use the term caliph or caliphate, he does appear to have the caliphal institution in mind. In the same query the questioner asks: “What are the necessary qualifications that the caliph of the Muslims must meet?” Traditionally one of these qualifications is descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe of Quraysh, and in this regard Mullah ‘Umar does not qualify. But Bin Laden argues that the Taliban leader is not disqualified on this count (“the bay’a is not withheld because he is not of Quraysh”), citing the legal precedent that the qualification can be ignored in the event of necessity or weakness.

The second development came July 19 in al-Qaeda’s release of a new newsletter called al-Nafir, the first words of which reaffirm Mullah ‘Umar as al-Qaeda’s supreme leader. The first sentence reads: “[Al-Nafir] begins its first issue with the renewal of the bay’a to the Commander of the Believers Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, the jihad warrior (may God protect him), and it affirms that al-Qaeda and its branches in all locales are soldiers in his army, acting under his victorious banner, by God’s help and His grant of success, until the shari’a prevails…until every part of the land of Islam is liberated…until the Islamic conquests again take place…and return all the violated lands of Islam to the coming caliphal state, God willing.”

The message here seems to corroborate Bin Laden’s words to the effect that Mullah ‘Umar is his caliph. Yet if Bin Laden’s words are ambiguous to the extent that he does not use the word caliph, then al-Qaeda’s newsletter is even more ambiguous. While it clearly aims to recast Mullah ‘Umar as the undisputed leader to whom all al-Qaeda branches must ultimately give bay’a, it also speaks of “the coming caliphal state,” suggesting that there is no caliph. Furthermore, the newsletter does not suggest that Muslims beyond al-Qaeda are obligated to give bay’a to Mullah ‘Umar, as Bin Laden’s words do seem to suggest.

Shinqiti’s fatwa

It is not only the Bin Laden video and al-Qaeda newsletter that have pro-Islamic State jihadis in an uproar. On July 18, the day before the newsletter was released, the influential jihadi ideologue Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti released a fatwa disputing the Islamic State’s right to the caliphate and arguing that, in principle, it belongs to Mullah ‘Umar. Shinqiti, who is presumably Mauritanian but otherwise anonymous, is a well-known jihadi authority online, previously affiliated with the Shari’a Council of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s website.

What has made his fatwa so controversial is that he has been one of the Islamic State’s strongest ideological proponents. Three of his essays (see here, here, and here) have been widely promoted by pro-Islamic State media outlets. In them Shinqiti argues that the Islamic State is possessed of a “general bay’a” (bay’a ‘amma) and that all Muslim militant groups in its vicinity are therefore obligated to give bay’a to its leader. Accordingly, he has vehemently attacked Jabhat al-Nusra and all those arguing on its behalf, such as al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who claim that the Islamic State has only a “war bay’a” (bay’at harb) like any other group fighting jihad.

His latest work, entitled “The Caliphate Announcement in the Balance of the Shari’a,” appears to represent a reversal of his position. Here Shinqiti argues that the Islamic State’s announcement does not have the interests of the Muslim community in mind, aimed as it is at settling a score with Jabhat al-Nusra, a ploy that will only deepen the rivalry between the two groups. He furthermore criticizes the Islamic State for failing to consult with the Taliban’s Mullah ‘Umar in making its declaration. This failure is particularly negligent since, according to Shinqiti, the Taliban leader has been the Islamic world’s caliph since 1996, when he was given bay’a in Afghanistan. Shinqiti holds that his caliphate has obtained since then, at least in theory if not in practice, and whether Mullah ‘Umar has claimed the title for himself or not. This is because, in his thinking, the shari’a does not strictly speaking distinguish between amir and caliph. Therefore the first Muslim leader to be given bay’a ipso facto becomes caliph, with priority claim to the title. Like Bin Laden, Shinqiti also counters the charge that Mullah ‘Umar is disqualified on grounds of not descending from Quraysh, drawing on the same legal precedent.

Some jihadis have disputed the authenticity of Shinqiti’s latest fatwa, but they are almost certainly in error. In May 2013, in a fatwa for al-Maqdisi’s Shari’a Council, Shinqiti actually reached the same conclusion: that Mullah ‘Umar is the “commander of the believers” into whose bay’a “all Muslims must enter.” The only difference was that he did not explicitly call him “caliph.”

Defending Baghdadi

Shinqiti’s fatwa and al-Qaeda’s recent moves have inspired a rash of refutations from the pro-Islamic State jihadi community. The first of these, by a certain Abu Maysara al-Shami, quotes numerous statements of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders explicitly rejecting the idea that Mullah ‘Umar is caliph.

In a 2008 forum, for example, now-al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was asked the same question posed to Bin Laden above: “Is Mullah ‘Umar the commander of all believers, or is he [merely] the amir of an Islamic emirate in the land of Khurasan?” Zawahiri responds: “Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar (may God protect him) is the amir of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and whoever joins it, Shaykh Osama bin Laden (may God protect him) being one of his soldiers. As for the commander of the believers across the world, this is the leader of the caliphal state that we, along with every faithful Muslim, are striving to restore, God willing.” Here Zawahiri clearly denies that all Muslims must give bay’a to Mullah ‘Umar, the global commander of the believers having as yet not emerged.

The statements from Mullah ‘Umar himself likewise show the Taliban to have a restricted political vision. He is quoted as saying that “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has strategic and political objectives related to Afghanistan only…as it wants to establish good relations with all the world’s countries in the spirit of mutual respect.” Indeed, as Shami notes, jihadi scholars have been extremely critical of Mullah ‘Umar for seeking normal relations with the international community, as in its holding a seat at the United Nations.

The several refutations of Shinqiti’s fatwa (see here, here, here, here, here, and here) give even more reasons why the Taliban leader cannot possibly be caliph. In addition to criticizing Mullah ‘Umar for participating in the international community, they dwell on the following points: the caliph cannot exist only in theory but must enjoy real political power; the terms of his bay’a as caliph must be clearly understood by all concerned (“How can Mullah ‘Umar be caliph and no one has known this until now?”); the caliph has to be from Quraysh, as is Baghdadi but not Mullah ‘Umar; and the caliph must espouse proper salafi theology as jihadis do, not the Maturidism of the Taliban.

Fostering ambiguity

In assessing the motives of al-Qaeda’s recent recasting of Mullah ‘Umar, one anonymous jihadi writer pointed to the insight of the 14th-century North African Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, who wrote: “The vanquished always want to imitate the victor in his distinctive characteristics, his dress, his occupation, and all his other conditions and customs.” The jihadi author hereby suggests that al-Qaeda, having been vanquished by the ascendant Islamic State, feels the need to imitate the victorious Caliphate’s strategy. There may indeed be some truth to this. The noted anti-Islamic State jihadi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi recently stated, in an essay rejecting Baghdadi’s caliphate: “Had we been looking to win the favor of the people…we would have ridden the wave of the [Islamic] State.” The implication of his words is that the caliphate strategy is an increasingly popular one in the jihadi community, at least in al-Maqdisi’s Jordan.

Yet al-Qaeda clearly has more subtle aims than outright declaring a counter-caliphate. Its two statements, in the video and newsletter, indeed concentrate an unusual amount of attention on the Taliban leader, apparently intending to recast him in a more caliphal role. Yet al-Qaeda also seems intent on preserving a certain ambiguity in its embrace of Mullah ‘Umar, as if he is at once caliph and yet not quite so. This is just the kind of ambiguous role that the Islamic State’s Baghdadi used to play before declaring the caliphate last month. He was the “commander of the believers,” but not necessarily the commander of all believers. This ambiguous role, which had proven so popular in Baghdadi’s case, now appears the preserve of Mullah ‘Umar. Or at least the al-Qaeda leadership is testing it out.

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.