Why Is ISIS So Bad?

Posted: 15th September 2015 by Will McCants in Uncategorized
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Why is ISIS bad? It’s a basic question that I encounter a lot, along with the related question, why is ISIS so evil?

Good and evil are value judgments, so everyone will have a different opinion about what deserves the labels. But we can at least say that ISIS (aka the Islamic State) is out of step with mainstream morality in most Muslim and non-Muslim countries.

Still, that begs the question: why is ISIS so bad relative to mainstream culture? The answer lies in ISIS’s needs and desires.

  • ISIS wants to revive parts of Islamic scripture written in the early Middle Ages. Perhaps those parts reflected mainstream morality then but they’re out of step with today’s mainstream.
  • ISIS wants to terrify the local population to subdue it. As you’ll see in my book, ISIS could govern and fight differently but it doesn’t think the alternatives are effective.
  • ISIS needs to raise money, which is hard to do legally when everyone wants to destroy you.
  • ISIS needs to excite young men to fight for its cause. Sex and violence is one way to do it.

Most of what ISIS does arises from one or more of those needs and desires. They combine to motivate some of ISIS’s worst atrocities, like slavery, destroying and looting antiquities, and beheadings.

ISIS atrocities 9-15-2015 (2)








For more on what motivates ISIS, read The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.

Baghdadi’s Family Tree

Posted: 9th September 2015 by Will McCants in Uncategorized

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State and self-proclaimed caliph, claims to be a descendant of Muhammad. That’s not surprising since most Sunni Muslims believe only a descendant from Muhammad’s tribe can be caliph. What makes Baghdadi’s lineage interesting is that he claims to descend from Muhammad through ten of the twelve Shi`i imams. That’s an unusual and sadly ironic genealogy for a man hellbent on eradicating the Shia. I mention Baghdadi’s genealogy in passing in my profile of him but you can read a fuller discussion of it in my forthcoming book, ISIS Apocalypse. There you’ll learn about the apocalyptic prophecies that his pedigree supposedly fulfills.

Baghdadi's family tree

To all appearances Turki al-Bin‘ali, the 30-year-old Bahraini scholar presumed to be the Islamic State’s top religious authority, has been silent for nearly a year. Within weeks of being profiled on Jihadica in July 2014, Bin‘ali suddenly went dark, letting his Twitter account go inactive and discontinuing his incessant online writing. Overnight the Islamic State seemed to lose its most prolific protagonist.

Yet Bin‘ali has not actually kept mum over the past 11 months, rather being hard at work in more important—if less prominent—capacities, his responsibilities expanding notwithstanding his withdrawal from the limelight. Meanwhile, pro-al-Qaeda jihadis have stepped up attacks on him as the symbol of all that is wrong with the Islamic State: overzealous, contemptuous of seniority, and lacking in religious knowledge. In May 2015 some of them circulated embarrassing stories about him using the Arabic hashtag #Bin‘ali_leaks. They are not the only revelations of the past year.


As will be recalled, Bin‘ali, who moved to Syria around February 2014, was the most high-profile voice within the Islamic State during its run-up to the caliphate declaration of June 2014. He authored glowing biographies of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, as well as stinging refutations of big-name jihadi critics like Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Qatada al-Filastini, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, and Iyad Qunaybi, among others. Defending the Islamic State’s every move and castigating its every critic, Bin‘ali’s disappearance from the internet marked a dramatic change.

What accounts for the change is not entirely clear, but most likely is that Bin‘ali was silenced by the Islamic State leadership just as he was promoted into it. In November 2014 the Twitter account @wikibaghdady, which periodically leaks Islamic State secrets, noted the group’s new prohibition against its scholars’ writing online without receiving prior approval. Accordingly, Bin‘ali and his cohort seem to have removed themselves from the internet. Rival scholars in Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, by contrast, including Sami al-‘Uraydi and Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, maintain Twitter accounts. The Islamic State’s scholars, for whatever reason, speak not to the outside world.


Also in November 2014, @wikibaghdady informed of Bin‘ali’s elevation to the post of chief mufti of the Islamic State, and circumstantial evidence would seem to corroborate the claim. (Contrary to what the Guardian recently reported, “scholar-in-arms” is not Bin‘ali’s official position. And contrary to widespread rumors, it is highly unlikely that Bin‘ali is in Libya, though he did visit there in 2013 and may play a special role in outreach to the country.)

The most detailed information about Bin‘ali’s role in daily Islamic State operations came in a recent four-part special (see here, here, here, and here) for Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat by journalist ‘Abd al-Sattar Hatita, who interviewed five former Islamic State shari‘a officials. In each installment Bin‘ali plays the role of supreme shari‘a authority.

The former officials, all young men in their 20s, described Bin‘ali as “the head of the apparatus for commanding right and forbidding wrong.” They also described him as charged with providing “books, pamphlets, and fatwas” for Islamic State training camps, literature that is published by “the Council for Research and Fatwa Issuing.” Much of this, they said, is written by Bin‘ali himself, and some of the works are for some reason exclusive to the training camps, including three booklets on theology, jurisprudence, and governance, respectively. The latter, titled “Informing the Flock about Public Law,” is almost certainly written by Bin‘ali. (I managed to obtain a copy only when a low-level Islamic State member on Twitter uploaded it in a series of photos in February.)

Policing extremism

In addition to his work as mufti and author, Bin‘ali appears from Hatita’s account to be intimately involved in settling religious disputes in the fledgling caliphate: namely, toning down some shari‘a officials’ more extremist tendencies.

In one instance last summer, Bin‘ali summoned several of the shari‘a officials in question from their battlefield posts in Aleppo to Raqqa for a talk. The men stood accused of spouting views too extreme for the Islamic State on certain doctrinal matters, particularly takfir—the excommunication of fellow Muslims. The young officials deemed al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri an unbeliever and considered al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra a group of unbelievers through and through. On a more theoretical level, they adopted an uncompromising stance on the theological principle of al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl (lit. “excusing on the basis of ignorance”), whereby Muslims can be excused certain errors of belief on account of not knowing better. These officials went so far as to insist that anyone engaged in such “excusing” was himself an unbeliever. In a two-and-a-half hour conversation in Raqqa, Bin‘ali, “anger and malevolence pouring from his face,” failed to make any headway with his interlocutors.

Ultimately the shari‘a officials reached the point of excommunicating the Islamic State itself and very carefully escaped to their home countries. Not all officials of their bent have been so fortunate. As Hatita relates from his sources, dozens of these Islamic State uber-extremists have been imprisoned, and some even executed. One of those killed was the prominent Tunisian scholar Abu Ja‘far al-Hattab, who penned the first extensive defense of Baghdadi’s expansion to Syria in 2013. Twitter jihadis were discussing rumors of his death back in September 2014.

All in the family

None of this is to downplay the extent of Bin‘ali’s own extremism. Indeed, the radical tendency seems to run deep in his branch of the Bin‘ali family in Bahrain (though the larger Bin‘ali clan seems to be moderate and close to the government.)

In late January 2015 Bahrain issued a decree stripping 72 Bahrainis of their citizenship, citing numerous reasons all to do with jihadism. On the list were four Bin‘alis, including Turki (#17) and two of his full brothers, ‘Ali (#50) and Muhammad (#60). On the backgrounds and whereabouts of the two brothers there seems to be little information, though the second brother is on Twitter and clearly supports the Islamic State. So too do Turki al-Bin‘ali’s father, Mubarak, and a third full brother, ‘Abdallah.

In April 2015 Bahraini authorities arrested the third brother, who is also on Twitter, at Bahrain International Airport attempting to flee the country for the Islamic State. (Ahlam al-Nasr, the so-called “poetess of the Islamic State,” wrote a poem to mark the occassion.) Upon learning the news, Bin‘ali père himself started a Twitter account, from which he began decrying the arrest, even complaining that the Bahraini kingdom was preventing his son from “emigrating for the sake of God.” The father’s caliphal sympathies are manifest in other Tweets as well. On April 25 he wrote: “May God reward you well, my sons, for your honorable stance”—i.e., the four sons’ stance on the Islamic State.

In March Turki al-Bin‘ali was pictured holding what is assumed to be his infant son, thus apparently beginning the third generation of Bin‘ali extremism.

Making a peep

On Feburary 15, 2015 Bin‘ali broke his silence, releasing a short, angry refutation of his former teacher, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, written under the pseudonym Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari (on which more below). While Bin‘ali had inveighed against Maqdisi before in a lengthy essay from mid-2014, the friendly ties between the two had not yet completely unraveled. In fall 2014 Maqdisi had reached out to Bin‘ali in hopes of securing the release of American hostage Peter Kassig, as the Guardian reported, and although the effort failed the pair seemed to enjoy a “warm exchange” over the phone.

Not to be disheartened, Maqdisi again reached out to the Islamic State in January 2015 in an effort to secure the release of Jordanian pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba, whose plane had gone down over Raqqa in late December. As Joas Wagemakers discussed in detail, Maqdisi proposed a prisoner swap: Kasasiba for failed female suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi. In the course of these efforts Maqdisi dispatched a voice message to someone in the Islamic State, subsequently made public, hoping that there remained a semblance of “brotherhood” between himself and Bin‘ali. “I still expect there to be mutual esteem between us,” he said, “notwithstanding the severe criticism and exchange of words that has gone before.”

But when the Islamic State released the video of Kasasiba’s immolation on February 3, an infuriated Maqdisi took to Jordanian airwaves to denounce the Islamic State yet again. “They lied to me,” he complained. “They are beheading (lit. slaughtering) mujahidin!” He continued: “Immolation!? The Prophet said: ‘No one punishes by fire except the Lord of Fire.’” “Jihadi-Salafism is innocent of these acts!” “What caliphate is this?” “They have distorted the jihadi current.”

12 days later Bin‘ali issued his response, a five-page polemic titled “Maqdisi: Falling in the Mud and Abandoning the Religion.” The take-down is intensely personal, the author at one point addressing Maqdisi with the name Abu Muhammad al-Sururi, associating Maqdisi with an early teacher of his, Muhammad Surur Zayn al-‘Abidin, notorious for opposing the jihadis. The rest of the refutation is concerned with Maqdisi’s failure to condemn the title of the television program on which he appeared—“Pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba the Martyr”—and with the merely “legal matters” of ransoming apostates, beheading, and immolation.

On the subject of ransoming and immolation, Bin‘ali’s opinions are nearly identical to those given in the fatwas that I translated in March (see no. 52 and no. 60). In short, his argument is that ransoming apostates (i.e., Kasasiba) is only permissible when absolutely necessary. Punishment by immolation, he says, was approved by the Hanafi and Shafi‘i schools of law in addition to being approved by all four schools in the case of reciprocal punishment. As to beheading, Bin‘ali cites the standard prooftexts invoked by jihadis supporting the practice, including the Prophet’s statement, “O people of Quraysh, by God, I have come to you with slaughter,” and several reports in which the Prophet seems to approve of those carrying severed heads.

A month and a half later, a member of the Shari‘a Council of Maqdisi’s website published a 30-page critique of Bin‘ali’s refutation, subtitled “a refutation of the lying shari‘ia official of the [Islamic] State hiding behind ‘Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari, and a defense of our Shaykh Maqdisi in the matter of the Jordanian Pilot.” The work is too detailed to summarize, but the author makes two noteworthy charges. One is that Bin‘ali is the author of the essay in question and is “hiding behind” the pseudonym Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari, which information he says came from “two reliable sources” close to Bin‘ali. Second is that Bin‘ali’s subtitle, “abandoning the religion,” unmistakably amounts to takfir, or excommunication, of Maqdisi. In other words, the chief shari‘a authority for the Islamic State has excommunicated Jihadi-Salafism’s most preeminent ideologue. Two counter-refutations (see here and here) supporting Bin‘ali appeared in the succeeding months. Neither disputed either charge.

The Other pseudonym

Oddly enough, Bin‘ali’s critics failed to mention that he had written under the name Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari before. Searching online, I found 12 essays under the name from the period March-May 2014, and in terms of style and content (and even formatting) they are unmistakably his work. Their appearance furthermore coincides with the period in which the Bahraini was extraordinarily active online, writing under two other pseudonyms and also under his own name.

In April 2014 Bin‘ali confessed to being behind the two pen names Abu Human al-Athari and Abu Sufyan al-Sulami but did not mention Abu Khuzayma al-Mudari. Perhaps he wanted to leave one name unacknowledged for future use. At all events, what further confirms the pseudonym’s belonging to Bin‘al’i is his statement that he only chooses pseudonyms that accurately reflect who he is. And according to his biography, he descends from the Mudar clan (Mudari is the ascriptive).

Adding Mudari to the count, one finds that Bin‘ali wrote some 45 works between October 2013 and May 2014 (see the “Inventory of Bin‘ali Writings” below.) In some cases he published more than one work on the same day. Possibly he wanted to give the impression that more jihadi scholars supported the Islamic State than was actually the case. Thomas Hegghammer has observed “how single media-savvy individuals can dramatically increase the perceived size and strength of [a jihadi] organisation.”

The 12 Mudari writings are not otherwise particularly noteworthy. Here Bin‘ali is occasionally more pointed than usual (he identifies 16 grammatical errors in a statement by Jabhat al-Nusra scholar Abu Mariya al-Qahtani), but generally they are just more of the same: the Islamic State is great, al-Qaeda is flawed, the Taliban is flawed, Jabhat al-Nusra consists of traitors, etc

Dreaming about Hani al-Siba‘i

In May 2015 a certain jihadi opposed to the Islamic State released 19 emails from Bin‘ali to jihadi scholar Hani al-Siba‘i, dated between 2009 and 2012. Siba‘i, a London-based Egyptian in the top tier of jihadi scholars along with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, has like his peers stood firmly opposed to the Islamic State and supported al-Qaeda.

According to Siba‘i, who later spoke about the email affair in a recording, Bin‘ali sent him some 40 to 50 emails over the years, using various pseudonyms. Siba‘i had circulated 19 of these to fellow jihadi scholars, one of whose students subsequently posted them to Twitter without permission. Though surprised, Siba‘i did not regret the leaks, using #Bin‘ali_leaks to poke fun at his one-time pupil. Most of the emails were mundane, with Bin‘ali flattering “my teacher” and calling himself “your pious student.” Several bore requests for Siba‘i to contribute forwards to his books.

Others were stranger. In one from October 2011, Bin‘ali said that he recently dreamed about Siba‘i. “I dreamed about you several days ago,” he wrote. “I dreamed that I had traveled to you intending to study under you. I came to London and arrived at your house. I went inside, seeing there a great verdant garden, and I proceeded till I came to you. I sat with you and spoke with you at length.” In the same email Bin‘ali asked Siba‘i to send him personal photographs, “like you behind your desk and the like.” In his comments Siba‘i, laughing, admitted to sending one photograph. He also said that there were other emails with some “very personal things” that “I did not publish.”

In addition to jeering at him, Siba‘i expressed serious regret about Bin‘ali, a mere “youth” who was soliciting fatwas from his seniors just years ago and now deigns to “give fatwas to the entire Muslim community.” “I hope that he turns in penitence to God,” he said, but unfortunately “he cannot come back. He would be shot.” Indeed, the Islamic State does not permit its members to leave.

Siba‘i went on: “This community is the graveyard of extremists…and only the truth shall prevail…You will know, succeeding generations in the future will know, that what I am saying is right.” Yet in all likelihood it is Siba‘i and his ilk who are headed for the graveyard first. Perhaps symbolically, Siba‘i’s once-acclaimed website was permanently deleted within days of his comments. Impressively, the silent mufti seems to be quietly winning.


Inventory of Binʿalī writings since August 2013:

The name used by the author is indicated in parentheses. Binʿalī=Turkī ibn Mubārak al-Binʿalī, Atharī =Abū Humām Bakr ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Atharī, Sulamī=Abū Sufyān al-Sulamī, and Muḍarī=Abū Khuzayma al-Muḍarī.

August 5, 2013           Mudd al-ayādī li-bayʿat al-Baghdādī (Atharī)

October 16, 2013        al-Maʿānī qabl al-tahānī (Sulamī)

November 13, 2013    Nawāfidh ʿalā ʿālam al-jinn (Binʿalī)

November 17, 2013    al-Mutaʿassir fī kalām al-munaẓẓir (Sulamī)

November 25, 2013    al-Ikhṭiṣār fī ḥukm qaṭʿ al-ashjār (Sulamī)

December 4, 2013       Ruʾyā gharība fī mawāṭin ʿaṣība (Binʿalī)

December 11, 2013     Rafʿ al-labs fī ḥukm madḥ al-nafs (Binʿalī)

December 15, 2013     Khaṭṭ al-midād fī ʾl-radd ʿalā ʾl-duktūr Iyād (Atharī)

December 22, 2013     Taḥbīr al-dawāh ḥawl ḥadīth “wa-mā lam taḥkum aʾimmatuhum bi-kitāb Allāh” (Sulamī)

January 5, 2014          Risālat naṣh wa-ʿatb li-ahl Ḥalab (Atharī)

January 8, 2014          al-Thamar al-dānī fī ʾl-radd ʿalā khiṭāb al-Jawlānī (Atharī)

January 19, 2014        Tabṣīr al-maḥājij biʾl-farq bayn rijāl al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya waʾl-Khawārij (Atharī)

January 29, 2014        Risāla ilā ʾl-ʿulamāʾ waʾl-duʿāt li-nuṣrat al-mujāhidīn al-ubāt (audio; Sulamī)

February 18, 2014      Bayān al-ukhuwwa al-īmāniyya fī nuṣrat al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya (signatory; Atharī)

February 28, 2014      al-Naṣāʾiḥ al-ʿaṭira li-junūd Jabhat al-Nuṣra (Binʿalī)

March 4, 2014            Mukhtaṣar al-suṭūr fī ḥiwārī maʿa ʿAdnān al-ʿArʿūr (Binʿalī)

March 13, 2014          Mufāraqāt bayn al-imāratayn (Muḍarī)

March 16, 2014          Mukhtaṣar kalāmī fī ʾl-radd ʿalā Abī ʿAbdallāh al-Shāmī (Binʿalī)

March 16, 2014          Bayn al-umma waʾl-Dawla al-Muslima (Muḍarī)

March 17, 2014          al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fī ʾl-ʿIrāq waʾl-Shām maʿahā siqāʾuhā wa-ḥidhāʾuhā: fa-mā lakum wa-lahā? (Muḍarī)

March 20, 2014          Waqafāt maʿa khiṭāb Abī ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sūrī (Binʿalī)

March 24, 2014          Kullukum rāʿin: risāla ilā shaykhinā Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī (Muḍarī)

March 26, 2014          A-laysa fīhim rajul rashīd? (Muḍarī)

March 29, 2014          Hal al-jihād ghāya am wasīla? (Binʿalī)

March 29, 2014          al-Duktūr Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī wa-biṭānatuhu (Muḍarī)

March 31, 2014          ʿAyyina min jahl al-ʿArʿūr (Binʿalī)

April 2, 2014              Hal al-jihād farḍ ʿayn am kifāya? (Binʿalī)

April 4, 2014              Zubālat al-milal waʾl-niḥal (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

April 5, 2014              Tanẓīm al-Qāʿida al-sharʿī wa-Tanẓīm al-Qāʿida al-shaʿbī (Muḍarī)

April 11, 2014            al-Qaṣīda al-Binʿaliyya fī dhamm al-jinsiyya (Binʿalī)

April 15, 2014            Mukhtaṣar al-lafẓ fī masʾalat dawarān al-arḍ (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

April 16, 2014            al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya waʾl-tajdīd (Muḍarī)

April 18, 2014            Hal yuqās ḥālunā ʿalā ʾl-marḥala al-Makkiyya am al-Madaniyya? (Binʿalī)

April 19, 2014            Waqfa maʿa baʿḍ al-alqāb (Muḍarī)

April 25, 2014            Hal al-maṣlaḥa fī ʾl-jihād am fī tarkihi? (Binʿalī)

April 29, 2014            al-Ifāda fī ʾl-radd ʿalā Abī Qatāda (Binʿalī)

April 30, 2014            al-Qiyāfa fī ʿadam ishṭirāṭ al-tamkīn al-kāmil lil-khilāfa (Binʿalī)

April 30, 2014            Jadwal muʿayyan lil-mubtadiʾ fī ṭalab al-ʿilm fī ʾl-dīn (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

May 1, 2014               La-qad ṣadaqa ʾl-Ẓawāhirī (Muḍarī)

May 3, 2014               Taʿlīq awwalī ʿalā kalimat al-duktūr Ayman al-Ẓawāhirī (Binʿalī)

May 10, 2014             Hal yajūz lil-Baghdādī an yatarājaʿ? (Muḍarī)

May 18, 2014             Sībawayh Harāra (Muḍarī)

May 19, 2014             Waqafāt sarīʿa maʿa mā yusammā zūran wa-buhtānan bi-quḍāt al-sharīʿa (reissue with new introduction; Binʿalī)

May 26, 2014             al-Lafẓ al-sānī fī tarjamat al-ʿAdnānī (Binʿalī)

May 31, 2014             Shaykī ʾl-asbaq (Binʿalī)

February 15, 2015      al-Maqdisī: suqūṭ fī ʾl-ṭīn waʾnsilākh ʿan al-dīn (Muḍarī)


On February 3, 2014, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (ISIS or ISIL) published a video depicting captured Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba wearing the notorious orange jump suit. For the background information on the secret negotiation attempt for his release, please check out the detailed contribution by Joas. For this Jihadica posting, let us concentrate on the propaganda side – and works – of ISIS, as announced in our first part.
This post looks at three aspects;

• How this video fits into the greater puzzle of jihadist ideology including the intersection between text based ideology and the demonstration (via video) of this ideology in practice.
• How the elements of the Swarmcast ensured the video would reach a wide audience and maintain a persistent presence.
• The limited impact of the response, named #opISIS, by hackers linked to Anonymous seeking to disrupt ISIS media networks.

Content matters, as does the means of delivery of jihadist propaganda data and material. Both elements highlight coherence: ideologically as well as technically. The ideological coherence, the persistence of its narratives and pseudo-theological fundament that is translated so well by jihadist media activists into audio-/ visual works shows parts of the resilience and the media strategy, the incorporation of the ‘jihadist tradition’. The video seeks to attract Arabic-speaking and non-Arab audiences, published in Arabic with encoded subtitles in English, French and Russian. ISIS exercises technical coherence and resilience in terms of disseminating the video and its propaganda in general – which, by the way is neither special nor outstanding or genius but simple use of a range of platforms (social media, forums, YouTube) by highly dedicated individuals, which we term as media mujahiddin.
The video is entitled Shifa’ al-sudur, a reference to Qur’an (9:14), and used by ISIS to justify and project the message that they are acting on behalf of God to “heal the believers’ feelings” as al-Furqan translates the title. The reference shifa’ al-sudur is part of the jihadist propaganda ambition to appease their target audience with audio-visual content that showcases, among many elements, “revenge” or at least “retribution” for the civilian suffering inside Islamic territories – reserved for the Sunni population only within this notion and mindset of course. The successful media strategy employed by ISIS focuses on audio/-visual output claiming practical application and translation of ideology into action. This is juxtaposed with assumed seniority of al-Qa’ida, who are crafting jihadist dogma but have little to no space (or territory) for implementation.
ISIS understands the importance of making use of the territory they control and deploys media units in every “province” (walaya). As a result, they publish up to 4-6 videos a day showing; the “life in the caliphate”, executions, sentences of physical punishment (hudud) framed as an evident legal system, religious policing of communities, the destruction of shrines of saints as well as a romantic view on fighting, sacrificing and being passionate for the local Sunni population of the “caliphate.” In general, Jihadists seek to deceive and coerce by trying to conceal their human fallibility while portraying themselves as God’s spokespeople. Therefore, every piece of their oftentimes highly professional and sometimes sophisticated propaganda is part of a greater puzzle.
In this greater puzzle everything is sanctioned, scripted, subjected to ideology, and is an integral part of the Sunni ‘jihadist tradition’ dominated by Arab ideologues and primary Arabic language publications (textual and audio/ -visual). Ideology in theory and practice serves as the motivation and guidance, it is built on the fundamentals of theology and pieces of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), used and interpreted to serve the extremist cause. The citation of historical scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), as well as quoting selected parts of Qur’an and Sunna out of context, are powerful tools for extremist ideologues and media workers. It provides leverage for a distinct identity established on the premises of being ‘true Muslims’ offering the ‘true Islam’ and openly challenging and discrediting the “palace scholars” (‘ulama’ al-salatin) worldwide.
The ‘state-owned ‘ulama’’ are defined as corrupt scholars who neglect the true nature of Islam and thus have become followers of the “program of falsehood (batil)” whereas the jihadi as the only true, steadfast servant of God portrays himself as the follower of the “program of truth (al-haqq). This is one of the fundaments of Sunni jihadist perception of community that has now led to the creation of an “Islamic State” where the “true” and “proper” principles and methodology of Islam can be realized.

Visual Culture

Videos are the most important mouthpiece to show the manifestation and realization of jihadist creed (‘aqida) and methodology (manhaj) for which they claim to live and die. The video discourse allows a constantly repetition and showcasing of doctrines that disparage non-believers and sanction the collective punishment of “apostates” (murtadd) and Muslim “hypocrites” (munafiq).
This theological led discourse can be defined as “discursive guidance.” By the constant repetition of extremist laden theological interpretation (texts) and its practical implementation (videos), jihadi media consumers and participants are guided into a specific notion that serves as the fundament to become active and potentially commit attacks.
The first posting regarding this video provides an overview of the video distribution via Twitter and the attempts at counter messaging. It shows that it is not enough to merely increase the volume of counter messaging, or even to be retweeted frequently; (counter) messaging must be able to penetrate the Jihadist clusters, especially across the range of languages, hence targeting the targeted audiences. If counter-messaging remains isolated, the result is less a counter message and more a separate conversation.
Shouldn’t “counter-messaging” or a “counter-narrative” rather seek to penetrate and at best infiltrate jihadist media clusters online in hopes of persuading consumers to turn away? On different levels?
In a future posting the specific messages that are encoded into this video will be detailed, for now let us assess some aspects of the Swarmcast phenomena through which the video was distributed; specifically, speed and resilience. The final section looks at the response from hackers who launched another wave of attacks on accounts they believed to be sympathetic to ISIS, or jihadist groups more broadly.


This section assesses some aspects of the Swarmcast through which the video was distributed; specifically, speed and resilience. Although some commentators and policy makers are tempted by the idea that suspending a few most active accounts could limit jihadist activity by reducing the number of users following selected accounts (discussed further here), data analysis of content distribution highlights that the Swarmcast can withstand such an approach.

speedclick to enlarge

In the first six hours there were over 32,000 retweets containing the tag: #شفاء_الصدور . This is a combination of those actively disseminating the video and those engaged in counter-messaging. The volume of retweets and the speed with which that occurs renders the removal of accounts largely ineffective in disrupting the dissemination of content. By the time accounts are identified and suspended the content has been widely distributed.
Equally, the focus on retweets allows the analysis to focuses on a behavioral response – showing who Twitter users responded to – rather than those who are most active. Analysis of accounts that other users think are important is often more effective than examining the most active accounts – as these may have a lot to say, but that doesn’t mean anyone is listening.
Engagement Profiles:
The Engagement profile of frequently retweeted accounts shows the same pattern of rapid information dissemination, with most activity occurring in the first six to eight hours. The intensity of engagement with accounts attempting counter-messaging is broadly speaking at the same time. This is a significantly faster response than that during the release of “the Clanging of Swords, part 4” (48 hours on that occasion). This speed of response may be because of the video having been published on a weekday, rather than a Saturday.

engagement profilesclick to enlarge (interactive)

The data shows that trying to remove individual videos or user accounts one-by-one, leads to a global game of whack-a-mole, a strategy ISIS seems to be employing on the battlefield as well.
This absorbs resources, while the media mujahedeen move fast enough to maintain a persistent online presence.

As discussed in previous pieces, degree of interconnection between accounts gives the cluster of users disseminating Jihadist content a level of resilience which, in addition to speed discussed above, enables the network to maintain a persistent presence. This highlights the importance of challenging the networks that distribute content rather than chasing after lists of individual accounts.
As discussed in the earlier post the network image visually attests that there are different clusters of users sharing content and that users sharing counter-messaging were almost entirely isolated from core media mujahedeen accounts.

resilienceclick to enlarge

Focusing on the core cluster identified on the image, this cluster is large enough and has a level of interconnection to achieve resilience and persistence. The core cluster contains 9,719 accounts. If the outlying groups are removed, this number goes down to 6,826 accounts connected by 17,713 author / retweeted relationships. In this group, 575 accounts were retweeted at least once by five or more other users. Of accounts who are retweeted at least once, the average number of users that retweeted them was 12.7 (with a median of 3). This indicates that while there are some particularly influential accounts, much of the distribution occurs through a broad network of interconnected accounts.

This observation is further borne out by the metrics produced by social network analysis, which also show in greater depth the roles key actors play in the network.

Important findings from this approach include that the counter messaging is much more centralised around a couple of accounts. In contrast, the decentralised dissemination of Jihadist content – the swarmcast – means a range of accounts are reaching different communities, with sufficient levels of redundancy to allow information to continue flowing despite the suspension of some accounts.

This combination allows the swarmcast to maintain a persistent presence and reach communities which the Counter effort does not. This analysis using the network metrics, confirms the visual analysis from the network image and is also supported by the Key Actor graph. The Key Actor graph and specifically the horizontal spread of accounts shows that a relatively large number of accounts were important in the distribution of information to specific communities.

scatter plotclick to enlarge (interactive)

The combination of analyses and metrics produced by social network analysis, confirms findings from earlier studies, that the media mujahedeen distributes content rapidly, through a resilient network capable of reconfiguring when some accounts are suspended.



There have been repeated stories over the last year of jihadist accounts being suspended, including in the aftermath of the beheading of James Foley, or the attempts by hackers linked to Anonymous to disrupt accounts as part of Operation No2ISIS.

On 6th February an article posted on Counter Current News claimed Anonymous had just “destroyed months of recruiting work for the terrorist network known as ISIS” and listed the accounts which they now claimed to control. The article also contained a video which describes the actions and rationale of the Anonymous RedCult team as part of #OpISIS.

opISISclick on the image for the video on YouTube

It is unclear how accounts are being selected as part of #OpISIS. However, when comparing the list of accounts that had been hacked, posted on the 6th February and comparing it to the users tweeting about #شفاء_الصدور – none (zero) of the users in the original list were involved in the release of the Cleansing of Believers’ Chests.

An updated list posted on the 9th February, listed over 700 accounts. Only 3.1% of those identified as priority targets with over 10 thousand followers appeared in the network of users disseminating the #شفاء_الصدور video. However, of all the accounts posted in the Feb 9th update, around 9.3% of these users were part of the dissemination of the Cleansing of Believers’ Chests.

Given the dispersed nature of the network and the relatively small proportion of users who were affected by #OpISIS and had been disseminating #شفاء_الصدور, the Jihadist swarmcast continues to exhibit speed and resilience. This allows the ‘media mujahedeen’ and those sympathetic to ISIS to maintain a persistence presence for their content online.

New Abbottabad Documents

Posted: 15th March 2015 by Will McCants in Uncategorized

In the course of the Abid Naseer trial, the U.S.  Department of Justice released several documents recovered from the raid on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. As I did with the Abbottabad documents released to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, I have cataloged the new documents and created a handlist with links to translations and originals.

The reference numbers in brackets are keyed to the original Arabic texts to avoid confusion. In the course of preparing the handlist, I noticed that two of the translations were attached to the wrong documents (translations of 424 and 432 were switched). I also saw that item 404 is actually three separate letters, none of which is translated (I split the document into three labeled a, b, c). If anyone wants to type up the documents and translate them, I’ll post your work here.

Of the authors and recipients, Sultan al-`Abdali “Qattal” al-Jadawi is unknown to me so I’m not sure if I transliterated his name properly.

  • Date: al-Sabt 7 Rabi al-Akhir 1430 (3? April 2009), From: Abu Bashir al-Najdi, To: Bin Laden, (Ar) [404-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD (a)]
  • Date: 7 Rabi al-Akhir 1430 (3? April 2009), From: Sultan al-`Abdali (aka “Qattal” al-Jadawi), To: Bin Laden (aka al-Walid (“the father”)), (Ar) [404-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD (b)]
  • Date: al-Sabt 7 Rabi al-Akhir 1430 (3? April 2009), From: ِ`Abd Allah b. `Umar al-Qurashi (aka Abu Damdam al-Qurashi), To: Bin Laden, (Ar) [404-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD (c)]
  • Date: ca. May 2010, From: Bin Laden, To: al-Hajj `Uthman, (Eng) (Ar) [426-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD] [date and author based on reference to letter by son Khalid]
  • Date: ca. May 2010, From: Bin Laden (aka Zmaray), To: al-Shaykh Yunis, (Eng) (Ar) [424-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD] [date based on similarities to Hajj `Uthman letter]
  • Date: 7 Rajab 1431 (19 June 2010), From: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), To: Bin Laden (aka Abu `Abd Allah), (Eng) (Ar) [420-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD]
  • Date: al-Sabt 5 Sha`ban 1431 (17 July 2010), From: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), To: Bin Laden (aka Abu `Abd Allah), (Eng) (Ar) [422-10-CR-109-S-4-RJD]
  • Date: al-Jum`a 26 Sha`ban 1431 (6 August 2010), From: Bin Laden (aka Zmaray), To: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), (Eng) (Ar) [432-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD
  • Date: al-Thulatha’ Dhu al-Hijja 1431 (23 November 2010), From: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), To: Bin Laden (aka Abu `Abd Allah), (Eng) (Ar) [428-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD]
  • Date: al-Sabt Awa’il Jumada al-Ula 1432 (5 May 2011), From: `Atiyya (aka Mahmud), To: Bin Laden (aka Shaykhuna (“our Shaykh”)), (Eng) (Ar) [430-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD]
  • Date: Unknown, From: Unknown, To: Unknown, (Eng) (Ar) [403-10-CR-019-S-4-RJD]





32 Islamic State Fatwas

Posted: 2nd March 2015 by Cole Bunzel in Islamic State of Iraq, Syria

In mid-February, self-declared Islamic State resident Abu ‘Umar al-Masri (@__UmBack__) Tweeted photos of 32 official Islamic State fatwas. Selected from a larger packet of more than 70, the 32 authentic fatwas (Islamic State supporters online have not cast doubt on their authenticity) provide a unique glimpse into life and politics in the Islamic State. Not intended as propaganda like most of the material distributed by the group, they are an unusual source, and one that so far seems to have gone unnoticed. Only one of them (no. 60) appeared and was analyzed previously.

Numbered and dated, the fatwas bear the insignia of the Islamic State’s Council for Research and Fatwa Issuing (Hay’at al-Buhuth wa’l-Ifta’), which seems modeled on Saudi Arabia’s body of similar name and purpose. Presumably, the Islamic State’s fatwa council is controlled by the larger Islamic State Shari’a Council, which carries real political weight. Recently, a former Islamic State mufti reportedly stated: “There’s nothing that is decided without the Sharia Council’s approval.” At the council’s helm, suggests Iraqi expert Hisham al-Hashimi, is the 30-year-old Bahraini scholar Turki al-Bin‘ali. The latter is likely the author, coauthor, or editor of some of the fatwas.

Below I provide a summary translation of the 32 fatwas, omitting the abundance of scriptural evidence provided and most of the legal argumentation. All are in question-and-answer format. Unfortunately, Abu ‘Umar did not photograph all of the fatwas in his stapled packet but rather only 35-38, 40-57, 59-62, and 65-71. These span the period December 2014 to February 2015. For accurate conversion of Islamic to Gregorian dates, I consulted the Islamic State’s official calendar.

The subjects covered are numerous: taxation (36, 70), warfare (35, 57, 59), travel (37, 46, 48, 65), games (49-50), women (40-45, 61, 70), dress (55-56), ritual (47, 53), counterfeit goods (51), organ transplantation (68), ransoming prisoners (52), and immolation (60), among others. One can glean from these fatwas much information about significant problems facing the the Islamic State. For example, no. 42 points to a dearth of female doctors, and no. 46 suggests that some widows of “martyred” Islamic State fighters have attempted to flee with their children. What is more, several of the fatwas presumably authorized subsequent actions taken by the Islamic State, such as its decision not to ransom (no. 52) Jordanian pilot Mu‘adh al-Kasasiba but rather burn him alive (no. 60).

Fatwas of the Islamic State’s Council for Research and Fatwa Issuing:

No. 35, December 11, 2014

Q. Does hard currency come upon in the course of jihad become war booty (fay’), or should it be distributed as alms (zakat)?

A. War booty. As such, a fifth of it is to be given to the office of war booty.

No. 36, December 11, 2014

Q. Should the alms tax (zakat) be levied on agricultural holdings that once belonged to apostates?

A. Yes. In the case of an apostate seized in the Abode of Islam, the duty to levy zakat on his holdings does not cease with his apostasy, if we were aware of the duty to levy zakat on them at the time of his Islam. The rest of his property (i.e., what is not taxed as zakat) goes to the treasury of the Muslims. If we were not aware of the need to levy zakat on his holdings at the time of his Islam, then all his property is considered war booty for the Muslims. In the case of an apostate who flees to the Abode of Unbelief, all of his property, including agricultural holdings, becomes war booty.

No. 37, December 16, 2014

Q. Is it permissible to travel to the areas under the control of the [Asad] regime for some need?

A. No. Travel to the lands of unbelief generally, and to the lands under the control of the regime specifically, is permissible only on the condition of one’s ability openly to disavow and show hatred to the unbelievers. We are certain that this condition is impossible to meet in the areas under the control of the regime; travel to them requires showing loyalty to it and disavowal of the Islamic State. However, if the need is actually a great need (darura), such as a medical condition, then travel to the lands of unbelief is permissible.

No. 38, December 2, 2014

Q. Is it permissible to curse an individual Muslim or unbeliever?

A. There are traditionally three rulings on this matter: (1) no in all cases, (2) yes in the case of unbelievers, and (3) yes in all cases. The difference derives from the existence of two kinds of cursing: (1) cursing one as guilty of acts of unbelief, iniquity, innovation, etc., and (2) cursing one as condemned to hellfire. Our view is that the first is permissible and the second is not, unless in the second case the accursed has already died upon unbelief.

No. 40, December 17, 2014

Q. Is it permissible for women to show their eyes and part of their face?

A. No. Women’s showing their eyes, or part of their face, causes temptation (fitna), especially when make-up is used. It is necessary for women to cover their eyes, even if only with something thin.

No. 41, December 17, 2014

Q. Is it permissible for a woman to wear weapons on her cloak (abaya), such that part of her body, or the definition of her body, is made visible?

A. No, not if the weapon gives definition to the body, as with a bandolier or quiver worn over the back. If the weapon is something like a Kalashnikov, then yes. It is permissible in the way a small bag is permissible.

No. 42, December 17, 2014

Q. Is it permissible, in the city or villages, for a female nurse to work in an office with a male doctor in the absence of a proper male guardian (mahram)?

A. No. It is forbidden for a woman to be alone with an unfamiliar man. If a guardian is unavailable, then she should have a group of women about her in order to ward off temptation. If a group of women is unavailable, then no.

No. 43, December 17, 2014

Q. Is it permissible for women to see male doctors for women’s medical conditions, given that there are few female doctors specializing in women’s medical conditions?

A. Women should see female doctors for treatment, and exert effort in seeking them out. If a female doctor cannot be found, then it is permissible to see a male doctor, but on the condition that he not be alone with her, and that he only examine her in the place(s) necessary.

No. 44, December 17, 2014

Q. What are the characteristics of women’s proper covering (hijab)? What are the characteristics of improper showing (tabarruj)?

A. Proper covering includes: (1) having the entire body and hands concealed, (2) being thick, not thin, (3) being unadorned, (4) being loose-fitting, not tight-fitting, (5) being unperfumed, (6) not resembling men’s clothing, and (7) not resembling infidel women’s clothing. Improper showing includes: (1) showing anything of the body before unfamiliar men, (2) showing any part of the clothing beneath the veil, (3) suggestive ambling in front of men, (4) leg slapping, which is highly arousing, (5) coy and flirtatious talking, and (6) mixing with men, touching their bodies, shaking their hands, and crowding together with them in cramped vehicles.

No. 45, December 17, 2014

Q. Is it permissible for a woman to travel without a proper male guardian (mahram)?

A. No. She must have a guardian.

No. 46, December 17, 2014

Q. Is it permissible for the wives of martyrs to leave with their children for the lands of unbelief?

A. No. It is prohibited for them, and for anyone else, to leave for and reside in the lands of unbelief. Whoso migrates from the Abode of Islam to the Abode of Unbelief has committed a great sin (ithm ‘azim), shirking the duty to emigrate to the Abode of Islam. If a woman insists on leaving for the Abode of Unbelief with the son of a mujahid, she should be punished (tu‘azzar) as a deterrent and preventive measure.

No. 47, December 18, 2014

Q. Is it permissible to specify the period of time intervening between the call to prayer (adhan) and the call just before the prayer (iqama)? Such as 30 minutes for the dawn prayer, 20 minutes for the midday prayer, afternoon prayer, and night prayer, and ten minutes for the evening prayer?

A. The Prophet’s normative practice (Sunna) indicates that a period of time intervenes between the call to prayer and the call just before the prayer. It is up to the prayer leader to determine the length of this period, such that the congregants are able to gather and perform their rites. The length of this period differs from prayer to prayer in accordance with the Sunna. The prayer leader must also consider the size of his congregation, with a view to not holding up a small group or rushing a large one.

No. 48, December 20, 2014

Q. Is it permissible to sell passports to the Muslims in the Islamic State?

A. No. It is not permissible to facilitate the travel of the inhabitants of the Islamic State to the lands of unbelief, whether they intend to travel there for a need, for trade, or for any other permissible activity. There is no question that the conditions necessary for travel to the lands of unbelief cannot be met today. These include: openly disavowing the unbelievers; not taking them as allies; evincing hatred of idolatry and unbelief and their people; being able to perform the Islamic rites in full and without fear; and not imitating the unbelievers or participating in their idolatrous holidays.

No. 49, December 28, 2014

Q. Is it permissible to play billiards?

A. Yes, but on several conditions: (1) that the game be free of all forms of betting and gambling, including forcing the loser to pay the cost of the game; (2) that it not inhibit worship of and obedience to God in any way; and (3) that there be no cursing or abusive language. It need be remarked that it is unbecoming of God’s mujahid servants to spend much of their free time on such things that do not benefit them but rather waste their time and harden their hearts.

No. 50, December 28, 2014

Q. Is it permissible to play foosball?

A. Yes, but on several conditions: (1) that the game be free of all forms of betting and gambling, including forcing the loser to pay the cost of the game; (2) that it be free of human figures and representations; (3) that there be no cursing or abusive language; and (4) that it not inhibit worship of and obedience to God in any way. We wish to stress, as we did in the ruling on billiards, that it is best to avoid such things as this, which do not redound to the benefit of the Muslims, particularly the mujahidin, but rather waste their time and harden their hearts.

No. 51, January 5, 2015

Q. Is it permissible to counterfeit brand-name goods and display them in the market with the same name?

A. No. It is a form of forbidden deceit to display goods among customers misleadingly. Selling counterfeit goods with the original brand name, without acknowledging it, is deceit and fraud. If the vendor insists on writing the brand name on counterfeit goods, he must do two things: (1) write “imitation” next to the brand name in the same size font, and (2) lower the price below that of the genuine item.

No. 52, January 14, 2015

Q. Is it permissible to ransom an apostate for money or men?

A. No. It is not permissible to ransom a captured apostate or show him mercy; he ought to be killed. This is made plain in the Qur’an and Sunna, and is a matter of consensus (ijma’) among the scholars. However, it could be argued that this act can be permissible in the event of a great need (darura), such as could derive from ransoming the apostate for some of the Muslims’ leadership among scholars and commanders.

No. 53, January 17, 2015

Q. Which is better, delaying the night prayer or performing it earlier in a mosque?

A. It is better to delay the night prayer until one third or half of the night has passed [night meaning the period between the evening prayer and the dawn prayer].

No. 55, January 18, 2015

Q. Is it permissible for men to wear their garments long (isbal)?

A. No. It is not permissible to wear one’s garment below the ankles, whether out of arrogance or for any other reason.

No. 56, January 19, 2015

Q. Is it permissible to wear Western clothing bearing images of people and animals, or clothing revealing of one’s intimate parts (‘arwa)?

A. No. Wearing Western clothing is forbidden since it involves imitating the unbelievers; the sin is magnified if the clothing bears images of people or animals. Likewise it is forbidden to wear clothing revealing of one’s intimate parts.

No. 57, January 19, 2015

Q. If someone succumbs to his wounds after battle, should the rites of martyrdom be performed, such as cleaning his body and praying over him?

A. In point of fact, a martyr who dies in battle should not have his body cleaned and should not be prayed over. He is to be buried in his blood. A martyr who dies in battle should be buried thus, as should one who barely survives and dies soon afterwards. If one is injured in the course of fighting the unbelievers and returns to normal life, then upon his death his body should be cleaned and he should be prayed over.

No. 59, January 19, 2015

Q. If someone is killed in the course of battle after the mujahidin have captured war booty, does his share of the war booty go to his heirs?

A. Yes. When one of the mujahidin dies in the course of battle after the war booty has been captured, then his share goes to his heirs, since he had acquired his share before dying.

No. 60, January 20, 2015*

Q. Is it permissible to burn an unbeliever till he dies?

A. The Hanafi and Shafi‘i schools of Islamic law judged immolation to be permissible, while some scholars judged it to be forbidden. At all events, it is permissible on the basis of reciprocity (mumathala), as when the Prophet gouged out the eyes of the ‘Uraniyyin.

No. 61, January 27, 2015

Q. Is it permissible for women to bleach their eyebrows?

A. Yes. The default judgment in a matter is that it is allowed, and bleaching is akin to dying one’s hair or beard, which no prooftext forbids. Still, it is best for a Muslim woman to avoid and refrain from all things that could lead to accusations being made against her.

No. 62, January 27, 2015

Q. Should one who finds lost property (luqta) be given compensation?

A. If the one who found it pointed it out voluntarily, then he is not owed anything. However, if the one who found it charged another with pointing it out, the first is owed compensation.

No. 65, January 29, 2015

Q. Is it permissible for the soldiers of the Islamic State to go to the lands of unbelief without a legitimate reason? Is it permissible to support them in this with money and property?

A. It is an obligation to distance oneself from the idolaters and their lands by means of emigration (hijra) to the Abode of Islam. The creation of the Islamic State has removed a major constraint from the Muslim community. God has given the community a state that applies Islamic law and rules thereby, so it is obligatory for all Muslims to emigrate to the Islamic State pursuant to the command of God and His Prophet. Whoso leaves the Abode of Islam for the Abode of Unbelief without a legitimate reason has committed a sin (ma‘siya). It is not permissible to support him with money or anything else.

No. 66, January 29, 2015

Q. Is it permissible to take a sum of money from one’s father or mother, or from a wealthy individual, with a view to using this money to emigrate to the Islamic State and wage jihad?

A. If one takes money in a lawful manner, such as in the form of a gift, then it is doubtless permissible. If one steals from or swindles the rich, this is not permissible. Nor is it permissible for a son to steal from his father. However, if a son takes from his father what the father was obliged by God to give him in the first place, then this is not theft. Such is the case of a son taking from his father in order to emigrate from the Abode of Unbelief to the Abode of Islam.

No. 67, January 29, 2015

Q. Many have asked about the truth of the Arabic numerals (٣ , ٢, ١, etc.), including the claim that they are Indian in origin and are the ones used in the Latin alphabet (1, 2, 3, etc.). We ask for clarification on this matter.

A. The historians have more than one position on this issue, but the best opinion is that the Arabic numerals are ٣ , ٢, ١, etc. The Arabs, not the Indians, introduced these numbers. The Arabs only borrowed from the Indians the idea of the decimal numeral system, not the shape of the numbers. So it is wrong to say that the Arabs took these numbers from the Indians.

No. 68, January 31, 2015

Q. Is it permissible for Muslims in need to take from the organs of an apostate prisoner?

A. Yes. It is permissible to transplant the healthy organs of the body of an apostate to the body of a Muslim, in order to save the latter’s life or improve his condition if he has lost organs. The jurists of the Shafi‘i and Hanbali schools of Islamic law, among others, permitted killing belligerent unbelievers or apostates and eating their flesh as a life-saving measure. The case of organ transplantation as a life-saving measure is similar. Moreover, it is established that the lives and organs of apostates are fundamentally licit. Their organs may thus be taken, whether or not the apostates are alive or already dead, and whether or not doing so results in their death.

No. 69, February 2, 2015

Q. Who comprises the Prophet’s family (Al al-Bayt)?

A. The two positions on this question are: (1) that the Al al-Bayt comprise the line beginning with Hashim (the Prophet’s great-grandfather) and (2) that they comprise the line beginning with ‘Abd al-Muttalib (the Prophet’s grandfather). The best opinion is that the Al al-Bayt comprise those forbidden from receiving charitable alms (sadaqa), which is the line beginning with Hashim along with the Prophet’s wives and progeny.

No. 70, February 3, 2015

Q. If a father on the brink of death distributes some or all of his lands to his sons, in a way contravening the law of inheritance, should zakat be levied on the lands altogether or on each piece of land individually?

A. The answer depends on whether the father has: (1) given the lands as gifts, (2) preemptively bequeathed them as shares of the obligatory inheritance, or (3) merely charged the sons with administering them. In the second case the bequeathal is unlawful, as the father who is still alive cannot preemptively bequeath. In the first case the gifts are legitimate so long as the division among the sons is equal; zakat should then be levied on each piece of land individually. In the third case ownership has not changed so zakat should be levied on the lands altogether.

No. 71, February 3, 2015

Q. Is the practice known to the masses as “reciprocal marriage” permissible? This is the practice whereby a man gives in marriage his daughter or sister to another man on the condition that the second man give his daughter or sister in marriage to the first, no bride price being paid.

A. No. This practice taking place today has long been forbidden by the law. It does an injustice to the bride, whose permission for marriage must be asked. Furthermore, the reciprocal deal cannot be considered a bride price. Such a marriage contract is unlawful.

* This is the only fatwa that appeared previously, before Abu ‘Umar’s photographs. See the full translation by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi.

It’s that time of the year again: the well-known Jordanian radical Islamic ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi is released from prison and speculation about why this happened and whether he cooperated with the Jordanian regime to get freed starts all over. I’ve commented on this before on Jihadica when he was released on a previous occasion and I’ve also briefly analysed his latest release in a Facebook post, so I won’t go into this here. Much more interesting, however, are the recent statements al-Maqdisi has made on the execution of the Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba, who had been captured by the Islamic State (IS) and was subsequently burned alive by them. These comments were made during a recent interview with al-Ru’ya, a Jordanian television channel, and a letter al-Maqdisi reportedly sent to IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. These give an inside account of the secret negotiations that have taken place to free al-Kasasiba and, as such, throw an altogether new light on them, showing that al-Maqdisi has likely been in the middle of this affair from the beginning.


It was first reported on 5 February that al-Maqdisi had been released from prison a week before. A day later, he gave an interview on Jordanian television in which he stated that as soon as he heard about the capture of the pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba, which was reported on 24 December 2014, he wrote letters to IS to try to get them to engage in a prisoner exchange, trading the pilot for Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman who had been sentenced to death for her involvement in the 2005 Amman hotel bombings that were ordered by former Al-Qa’ida in Iraq leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. The latter, of course, was a former student of al-Maqdisi’s when the two were still in Jordan together in the 1990s and is seen by IS today as the godfather of their organisation.

Al-Maqdisi claims to have contacted IS’s leader al-Baghdadi, the organisation’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani and its “scholar-in-arms” Turki al-Bin’ali, who used to be very close to al-Maqdisi before their disagreements over the Islamic State and its policies arose. His efforts to have IS exchange al-Kasasiba for al-Rishawi didn’t work out, however, since it turned out that the pilot had already been executed a month before, in early January. In retaliation, Jordan executed al-Rishawi (and another, Ziyad al-Karbuli, an Iraqi radical Islamist on death row). This turn of affairs caused al-Maqdisi to feel he had been betrayed by IS, with whom he had apparently negotiated in good faith. In the interview, al-Maqdisi calls IS “liars” and scolds them for equating jihad with slaughter and killing, the latest example of which is burning the Jordanian pilot alive, which is not allowed according to sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, he says. (For a more detailed summary, see my Facebook post; for excerpts from the interview translated into English, see here.)


Given al-Maqdisi’s previous criticism of IS and his long-held belief that jihad should be kept free from “excesses”, such comments are to be expected and sound familiar. What we did not know before, however, was that al-Maqdisi – if his statements are to be believed – was involved in negotiating al-Kasasiba’s release from the beginning. In fact, if he did indeed start writing letters to IS right after he heard about the pilot’s capture, he must have been involved in this as early as late December 2014, about a month before he was released from prison. If true, this not only means that there is less of a direct connection between his efforts on al-Kasasiba’s behalf and his own release from prison, but also that al-Maqdisi may have had a central role in this entire saga.

This is confirmed by the letter al-Maqdisi allegedly wrote to al-Baghdadi and which was recently published on the internet (including by the Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad). The letter is dated “Rabi’ al-Awwal 1436”, which coincides with the period 23 December 2014-21 January 2015, meaning that – if truthful – al-Maqdisi did indeed start negotiating with IS before he was released, which is said to have happened on 29 January 2015. It was also around that time – and not in early January, let alone late December – that the media started reporting about IS’s demands to have Sajida al-Rishawi released in return for the Jordanian pilot. Since hardly anybody had heard of al-Rishawi, many people wondered why on earth IS was suddenly so interested in this person and why they wanted her released. Al-Maqdisi’s alleged letter shows, however, that we may have consistently looked at this from the wrong angle.


In the letter al-Maqdisi is supposed to have written to al-Baghdadi, he never seems concerned with the fate of the Jordanian pilot at all. Citing the Prophet Muhammad and the 14th-century Muslim scholar Ibn Kathir, he states that it is a Muslim’s duty to free those who are suffering (either from imprisonment or otherwise), but does not refer to the pilot when saying this. On the contrary, he states that it is imperative that al-Baghdadi works towards releasing al-Rishawi. He emphasises that she is their Muslim sister, a close associate of al-Zarqawi’s and a mujahida, a female jihad fighter, for whom al-Baghdadi is responsible. Al-Maqdisi claims that al-Zarqawi himself had wanted to free her but was killed before he was able to. It now fell on al-Baghdadi, as al-Zarqawi’s successor, to finish what the latter couldn’t and free al-Rishawi. The key to this – as al-Maqdisi states repeatedly in his letter – is in al-Baghdadi’s hands: the Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasiba.

If this letter is to be believed, al-Maqdisi thus wrote to al-Baghdadi to have al-Rishawi released and saw the capture (and possible exchange) of the Jordanian pilot as a golden opportunity to achieve this. IS’s interest in al-Rishawi thus appears to have come not so much from any specific desire on their part to have her back, but much more from al-Maqdisi’s wish to see her released. In fact, if al-Maqdisi had not brought up al-Rishawi’s name in his supposed letter to al-Baghdadi, we might never have heard of her at all. This means that while many of us were looking for ways to explain IS’s interest in this obscure woman, we should perhaps have looked at al-Maqdisi instead.


Much of the above hinges on whether or not the letter al-Maqdisi wrote is authentic. Both in style – polite, but certainly not admiring of IS – and in content, the letter squares entirely with al-Maqdisi’s writings. The fact that he does not seem to care very much about the Jordanian pilot is not strange either: to al-Maqdisi, al-Kasasiba was obviously a combatant working for the “apostate” Jordanian regime engaged in waging war against a group that – though deviant and misguided in his eyes – was nevertheless Islamic. The fact that al-Maqdisi rejects the way the pilot was executed does not mean he believes al-Kasasiba was innocent, as he felt about the journalists and aid workers beheaded by IS. In fact, it was al-Maqdisi’s call for support of the Islamic State – despite his criticism of their practices – against the international coalition that landed him prison in the first place.

Al-Maqdisi’s efforts on al-Rishawi’s behalf should not surprise us either. Having spent some fifteen years in prison during his 23-year stay in Jordan, al-Maqdisi knows the trials and tribulations of gaol and may well sympathise with any jihadi inmate for that reason alone, particularly if this is abetted by an Islamically inspired duty of coming to the aid of those languishing in prison. Also, his close relationship with al-Zarqawi (and perhaps even his sense of responsibility about him and his actions) may make him more inclined to stand up for those associated with his former student. Moreover, al-Maqdisi has come to the defence of an obscure woman related to al-Zarqawi before. As I wrote several years ago on Jihadica, al-Maqdisi once defended al-Zarqawi’s wife when she was accused of inadvertently giving out information leading to the whereabouts (and, ultimately, death) of her husband. Furthermore, al-Maqdisi was not the only one who is said to have written a letter to al-Baghdadi. According to “sources from the Jihadi-Salafi trend [in Jordan]”, the mother of the other person executed by Jordan recently in retaliation for the pilot’s death, Ziyad al-Karbuli, also penned a letter to IS’s leader in which she offered to have him released in return for al-Kasasiba. She reportedly did not receive any answer from IS. Finally, it was reported a few days ago that al-Maqdisi is not allowed to talk to the press anymore and that the security services in Jordan were even surprised about his television appearance. This suggests that al-Maqdisi was at least partly acting on his own and was not constantly pushed by the regime to do this.

Inside account

The above is confirmed by a document written by Abu l-‘Izz al-Najdi, a presumably Saudi member of the Shari’a Council of al-Maqdisi’s website, who provides details of the negotiations taking place between al-Maqdisi and IS. He confirms the authenticity of al-Maqdisi’s letter and, given that al-Najdi’s document is posted on al-Maqdisi’s website, we may assume that the latter does so too. He also confirms that the Jordanian pilot was an apostate in al-Maqdisi’s eyes, but that an Islamically legitimate purpose could be served by setting him free because it would cause the Jordanian regime to release al-Rishawi. That it didn’t happen this way is, al-Najdi writes, ultimately IS’s fault and he therefore holds that organisation responsible for al-Rishawi’s death, as does al-Maqdisi.

Al-Najdi writes that while al-Maqdisi was engaged in negotiating al-Rishawi’s release with IS, the latter’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, didn’t even mention her in his audio messages to show that he cared about her. Al-Maqdisi, however, encouraged other jihadis to “send [letters] and put pressure on all those in IS in whom a remnant of good remains in order to rescue their sister Sajida [al-Rishawi]”, al-Najdi writes. A man named Abu Mahmud al-Mawsili eventually came to the fore, claiming to be a prominent member of IS who could mediate between al-Maqdisi and al-Baghdadi to get al-Rishawi released. This, al-Najdi writes, was “the first clear lie” since “it was confirmed to [al-Maqdisi] from week one that the pilot had already been killed, based on information that reached him from inside Iraq and Syria”. The mediator al-Mawsili said that this was a lie, however, and swore he was serious about this prisoner exchange. He also swore that the pilot was still alive, al-Najdi writes. Al-Maqdisi, unwilling to accept that a mujahid would lie about this, believed him.


As it became clear that IS was interested in a trade-off between al-Kasasiba and al-Rishawi – despite having already killed the former – Jordan indicated that it was willing to do business on these terms, but it did demand video images of the pilot in which he mentions the date to prove that he was still alive. What follows is almost farcical. Al-Mawsili, aware that he was now forced to prove that a man already executed was still alive, promised to show al-Maqdisi the video. When he eventually claimed to have the video showing al-Kasasiba was still alive, he subsequently stated he couldn’t play it for al-Maqdisi because the internet connection was too slow, but he swore he would send it to him.

Al-Maqdisi, al-Najdi writes, was starting to lose faith in al-Mawsili and saw his doubts confirmed when the mediator asked him if the Jordanian regime would also be willing to trade al-Rishawi for the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, who was still alive by this time and being held by IS as well. This indicated to al-Maqdisi that al-Mawsili was lying because he knew full well that Jordan was simply interested in getting its pilot back, not a Japanese journalist. Al-Maqdisi by now felt that he had been betrayed by IS all along and was angry by their apparent lack of concern for al-Rishawi. As such he holds IS responsible for al-Rishawi’s death because it could have prevented it by immediately accepting al-Maqdisi’s proposal, al-Najdi writes. Instead, IS “only cares about killing and slaughter and portraying that through Hollywood-like action” that they care more about than “the norms of the shari’a and helping the weak among their adherents among Muslims in general”.

The above doesn’t make this story any less dramatic and doesn’t change the outcome. Yet is does show that al-Maqdisi most probably played a much bigger role in all of this than we assumed until now, that his efforts to get the pilot released were actually not aimed at freeing him at all but at getting al-Rishawi out of prison and that IS’s interest in the latter was probably sparked by al-Maqdisi in the first place. One could argue that al-Maqdisi has been rather naive throughout this process, given his willingness to work with and believe people who have proven that a human life often means very little to them. Perhaps. Yet, the fact that al-Maqdisi didn’t mention in his recent television interview that he never really cared about the Jordanian pilot but actually saw him as an apostate who deserved to be killed and only acted as a means to get al-Rishawi released shows he is quite cunning after all: with Jordan up in arms over the execution of one of its citizens, such a remark would surely have landed al-Maqdisi in prison once again.

On Tuesday, February 3rd,  the al-Furqan Media Institute, the official media outlet of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) released a new video by the title Shifa’ al-sudur. Ali Fisher, Resident Data Scientist at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM) at Demos and Nico Prucha, Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College, analyse the extremist data flow and briefly some elements of the video to initiate a new series on Jihadica.

Following a common and yet new modus operandi, the video was announced first as a forthcoming release on Tuesday morning via Twitter and released hours later. New jihad videos are oftentimes announced hours or days before actually being released. The first tweet, as described below, was published by a high profile account that is, however, not an official IS Twitter handle. The ‘official’ IS Twitter handles have been removed mostly and IS seems to have given up to open new accounts and instead further decentralises it’s spreading of information by simply resorting to specific hash tags and relying on trusted accounts and individuals within respective networks. Unlike the release of Salil al-sawarim, part four that was published via Twitter using the – at the time – official wa-I’tasimu Twitter handle as shown in this graph made by Ali Fisher and then got picked up about 32k times by direct and indirect followers of this account, Shifa’ al-sudur endures simply by relying on its respective hash tags and fandom environments.

The broadcast of the “Healing of the Believers’ Chests” (#شفاء_الصدور) as used in the English translation by al-Furqan media has provided another demonstration of the efficiency and effectiveness of the propaganda production and the distribution system via the Media Mujahedeen as recently detailed by Ali Fisher and Jamie Bartlett at Demos. The distribution of the video shows that Twitter remains the beacon for the Jihadist social media zeitgeist. For those seeking to deliver counter-messaging, it is not enough to increase the volume, or even to be retweeted frequently; messaging must be able to penetrate the Jihadist clusters. If counter-messaging remains isolated, the result is less a counter message and more a separate conversation.

The Video:

As indicated by the banner, the video was released with embedded subtitles in English, French and Russian. The title of the film shifa’ al-sudur is a reference to the Qur’an and appears in an audio recitation By titling the video Shifa’ al-sudur, in reference to ninth sura, verse fourteen of the Qur’an, the jihadists seek to justify and empower the message as acting on behalf of God to “heal the believers’ feelings” according to the Qur’an translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. This strategy is certainly not new and part of a coherent ideological framework of justifying various acts. Jihadist media productions, in particular videos, are part of this notion to “heal the believers” as a statement from the first generation AQAP in 2006 highlights (Arabic version with German translation and commentary is available here).

The main part of the video consists of the captured pilot wearing the notorious orange jump suit explaining to the audience the details of his combat sortie on the IS capital of al-Raqqa and the general mission set up and armament. Jordan appears time and again within the jihadist media spectrum is a key ally in the outlined “war on Islam.” To underline this sentiment, the video opens with several sequences showing King Abdullah II pledging his full support to the international coalition against IS. Furthermore, sequences show Jordanian troops embedded with NATO forces in Afghanistan, a narrative that undermines the conviction of Jordan merely being a willing helper of western forces and hence part of the “crusaders”. Jordan’s involvement in Afghanistan was also the key element of AQ suicide bomber Humam al-Balawi (Abu Dujana al-Khurasani) who struck the forward operating base Chapman in December 2009, killing several American and Jordanian intelligence officers (details are available here). The captured Jordanian pilot Mu’adh al-Kasasba is framed likewise as an apostate (murtadd) who has forfeited his loyalty to God as a Muslim for serving King Abdullah II and is thus part of this crusader alliance, justifying his death within the brutal reasoning of an “eye for an eye”.



Tweets carrying the name of the video in Arabic (#شفاء_الصدور) spread rapidly on the 3rd February carrying a banner announcing the imminent release of the video.  The account of “Abu ‘Ali al-Junubi” has close to 7k followers and issued 1.4k tweets, mostly broadcasting IS-videos and news.

The next 66,000 Tweets containing included 43,698 retweets, spreading news of the release or by those attempting to counter the message. The other common tags in tweets containing #شفاء_الصدور hint at the other dominant messages which accompanied the release of the video.

The most often used tag refers to Shifa’_al-sudur, followed by al-Furqan Media. Not surprisingly, the third hash tag references IS. The fourth and fifth hash tags reference “daesh” or “da’ish”, the Arabic acronym for ISIS that is widely used by non-IS activists and the mainstream media online. As a campaign emerged on Twitter in support of the captured pilot using the hash tag “we are all Mu’adh”, IS activists deliberately injected the video of his killing by using the same hash tag as well. The other three hash tags refer to self-proclaimed provinces or prefectures (wilaya) of the IS. The beheading of captured Egyptian soldiers on the Sinai by the local IS branch, operating in the “province of Sinai” uses the same hash tag following the same reasoning (here).

The most retweeted accounts were:

The ‘success’ achieved by HewarMaftuh and DaeshCrimes of gaining large numbers of retweets can be misleading. As the network image visually attests, those retweets were by an almost entirely isolated group of users who were not engaged by with the group of accounts actively disseminating the video.

As observed with previous video releases, the content is part of a multiplatform zeitgeist. Other frequently shared platforms include YouTube, and JustPaste.it with the less common services such as vid.me, dump.to and sendvid providing additional resilience for the network.

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.