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Abu Qatada al-Filastini: “I am not a Jihadi, or a Salafi”

It has become a commonplace to observe that Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filastini, the two late-fifties Jordanian-Palestinian scholars, are the leading ideologues of the Jihadi Salafi movement. Following the rise of the Islamic State in 2013-2014, which both men vehemently opposed upon its caliphate declaration, the two fell out of favor with the most radical jihadis, but among those sympathetic to al-Qaida they remained profoundly influential. Living freely in Jordan after many years of periodic incarceration, they have expanded their influence over the past several years, disseminating messages and communicating with their followers via social media, primarily Telegram, on a near-daily basis.

But al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada have never been the same person, and lately they have not seen eye-to-eye on many issues. Al-Maqdisi has long been the more doctrinaire scholar, promoting a strict understanding of Salafi theology that is inherently exclusionary of militant Islamists of different theological persuasions. Abu Qatada has throughout his career stood for a more inclusive jihadism, one more appreciative of reality and more accommodating of theological diversity. The rebellion in Syria has cast a light on these different visions of jihadism while effectively pitting the two men against each other.

Jihad nukhba vs. jihad umma

Al-Maqdisi’s vision has been dubbed in Arabic jihad nukhba, or “jihad of an elite.” This refers to the idea that only a select group of Muslim warriors can lead the global community of Islam, the umma, to the desired end-state of a pure Islamic system ruled by the shari‘a. Speaking of this idea, al-Maqdisi has emphasized “the necessity of the persistence of an elite representing the monotheist faction in word and in deed, whose measure is monotheism (tawhid) firstly and always, who will be atop those guiding the jihad, leading it, and controlling it, so that it will not go astray or be robbed of its fruits.” Jihad nukhba  is reminiscent of and probably related to Sayyid Qutb’s notion of a “vanguard” of believers who must come together to face the forces of jahiliyya in a world in which Islam has practically ceased to exist.

The idea of jihad umma, or “jihad of [the] umma,” by contrast, which is represented by Abu Qatada and his followers, starts from the premise that the era of jihad nukhba has in large measure failed and therefore must come to an end. What should emerge in its stead is a jihadi movement that seeks to mobilize the umma at large. Developing this idea, Abu Qatada wrote recently of “the necessity of opening our jihad and our hearts to every Muslim who desires the victory of the shari‘a and the implementation of the Qur’an and the sunna.” Relatedly, he underscored the importance of accepting and dealing with “reality,” meaning the world as it is as opposed to “the ideal world” that accords with “our dreamy thoughts.” In his eyes, he is a realist jihadi; by implication, al-Maqdisi is an idealist.

The debate over jihad nukhba and jihad umma seems to have been sparked off by a fatwa written by Abu Qatada back in March 2017 criticizing the state of the jihadi movement. The context was the continuing evolution of what was originally al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, into Jabhat Fath al-Sham in July 2016 and then Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January 2017. By breaking ties with al-Qaida and allying itself with a diverse array of Islamist factions, HTS had alienated many jihadis, including al-Maqdisi, who saw it as diluting jihad and turning away from strict Salafi principles. In his fatwa, Abu Qatada reflected on the past and present of “the jihadi current” (al-tayyar al-jihadi), which, he lamented, had “succeeded with distinction in isolating itself” from the broader Islamic community. A crucial failing was the current’s embrace of an exclusionary “mindset” informed by the teachings of Wahhabism, focused as it is on enforcing pure monotheism (tawhid). This obsession with theological purity had led to such counterproductive opinions among jihadis as the excommunication of Hamas. Abu Qatada foresaw the obsolescence of “the ideological group” and its replacement by “the project of the umma.”

Al-Maqdisi has refrained from refuting Abu Qatada directly, but he has rebutted the jihad umma idea on multiple occasions. For instance, in a Telegram post in March 2017, he defended the concept of the “elite” in Islam, recalling the experience of the Prophet who, together with his early followers, formed a select group of warriors who overcame and ultimately absorbed the forces of unbelief. “This active elite,” he remarked, “are in every period the saddle-bearing camels who carry the religion and bring it to its objective.” It would be a “great mistake,” he warned, to put our trust in the umma, “the majority of which has forsaken the religion.” Rather, “it is necessary to preserve our distinctiveness in order that we be a good example for them and lead them to what is required by knowledge, God’s law, and reason.” Instead of “melting” into society, he said, the jihadis must bring society into the jihadi fold, so that they can “participate with the nukhba in leading the umma to its glories.”

To put things in more practical terms, jihad umma is associated with HTS and its more ecumenical form of jihadism, while jihad nukhba is linked to al-Qaida—particularly the al-Qaida remnant in Syria identified with Tanzim Hurras al-Din—and its more dogmatic version of jihadism. Thus one of HTS’s most prominent supporters online, the London-based Isma‘il Kalam (aka Abu Mahmud al-Filastini), has defended Abu Qatada’s idea of jihad umma at length, while one of HTS’s leading opponents, the al-Qaida leader Sami al-‘Uraydi, has refuted it on several occasions.

Turkish intervention

Another point of contention between al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada has been the issue of Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria, and particularly HTS’s willingness to engage in limited cooperation with the Turkish military in and around Idlib Province. In October 2017, as part of the Astana agreement, Turkish forces deployed on the outskirts of Idlib in coordination with HTS in a move that was deeply unpopular in jihadi circles. The reason for its unpopularity was that Jihad Salafi ideologues, including al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, have tended to view the Turkish government as a secular, infidel government, and President Erdogan as a secular, infidel ruler. Thus, collaborating with the Turks is potentially sinful or worse.

Abu Qatada made this point himself in a March 2017 fatwa, writing that “anyone who fights under the banner of the apostate Turkish army carries a judgment of apostasy and unbelief.” Later that year, however, in October, as HTS began coordinating with the Turkish military, his view became less categorical. In a video interview that month, he discussed the legitimacy of truces and agreements with unbelievers in Islamic law, saying of certain unnamed jihadi groups’ relationship with Turkey, “This matter should be left to its people.” Al-Maqdisi, by contrast, has exhibited no such tolerance of HTS’s cooperation with Turkey. In a post on the subject from last October, he described the Turkish military as an “invading enemy” that must be repelled by jihad.

The extent of the disagreement between Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi on this issue only came to the fore in summer 2018, as HTS was deliberating further cooperation with the Turks. On July 25, in a private Telegram chat with HTS leaders and other jihadis, Abu Qatada gave his opinion on HTS’s admission of the Turks into its territory, calling it a wise move in light of reality, the public interest, and the fact that the group was at risk of being rooted out. In his ruling—a copy of which was shared with me on a confidential basis—he acknowledged that his judgment on the matter had evolved over time as the strategic environment had changed, and that he was not alone in this regard. Indeed, he claimed, al-Maqdisi had reached the same conclusion, having told him that HTS’s admission of the Turks was good, wise, and unobjectionable.

Later that day, when word reached al-Maqdisi that this opinion had been attributed to him, he denied it in a strongly-worded Telegram post: “I have never said that admitting the secular Turkish military to the liberated areas is a good act! Or that it is a wise act! I have not even said the word unobjectionable about it! None of this has come from me, and I disclaim it before God. Whoever attributes any of this to me is a liar.” Al-Maqdisi had just called Abu Qatada a liar, if only indirectly. Indeed, it is likely that al-Maqdisi had seen exactly what Abu Qatada had attributed to him, since in the private Telegram chat Abu Qatada had put those exact words—“good,” “wise,” and “unobjectionable”—into al-Maqdisi’s mouth.

After this episode, the two men’s relationship seems to have been ice cold for about a month, after which they publicly made up. On August 23, al-Maqdisi wrote on Telegram that despite what people think he had not called Abu Qatada a liar. Rather, he had called the words attributed to him lies and had refrained from naming anyone. Al-Maqdisi then dismissed those “trying to spoil relations between myself and Shaykh Abu Qatada,” noting that the latter’s “honesty and probity are well-known.” Finally, he asked God to bring unity to the jihadis. The next day, Abu Qatada returned the compliment in a Telegram post of his own, praising al-Maqdisi for his contributions to jihad, downplaying “disputes among brothers,” and calling for unity. The truce seems to have been brokered by the Moroccan jihadi scholar ‘Umar al-Haddushi, who explained how he spoke to each man privately before they came out with their mutually laudatory posts.

The reconciliation between al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada was hailed by some of their supporters (see here and here), but some jihadis in the al-Qaida orbit have been unforgiving of Abu Qatada. For instance, Abu Hajir al-Shami, an al-Qaeda member in Syria, chastised him in a September post for providing cover for the “diluters” of HTS. Their pretense of friendship and unity notwithstanding, Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi remained deeply divided.

Mourning Jamal Khashoggi

The most recent sign of their division appeared in the aftermath of the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Five days after the event, the two scholars commented on his passing on Telegram.

Abu Qatada’s statement, which was posted first, comprised some reminiscences of his interactions with Khashaggi over the years. The two were not close or on good terms, but in the mid-2000s they saw each other almost daily as their children attended the same school in London. Despite their differences, Abu Qatada managed to say “may God have mercy on him,” indicating that he viewed Khashoggi as a Muslim.

Al-Maqdisi was not so charitable. In his remarks, as if responding to Abu Qatada, he wrote that “Jamal Khashoggi does not deserve that we speak about him at length, shed a tear for him, or ask God to have mercy on him … Not everyone who is killed or kidnapped or imprisoned by the [apostate] regimes becomes a hero or a martyr on whom we ask God to have mercy!” “Throughout his life,” al-Maqdisi continued, “he [Khashoggi] disgraced himself by supporting [apostate] regimes, giving loyalty to them, arguing on their behalf, and working in their sensitive establishments,” adding that he “was partial to the secularism of Erdogan.” Al-Maqdisi’s dislike for Khashoggi was also personal in nature. In 1995, Khashoggi had written a magazine article about him titled “The Ideological Theoretician of Those Who Carried out the Riyadh Bombing,” which linked him to a terrorist attack in Riyadh that year. Al-Maqdisi considered it defamatory.

The following day, in a response to a question about his asking God to have mercy on Khashoggi, Abu Qatada reaffirmed his view that Khashoggi was indeed a Muslim, highlighting his formation in the Muslim Brotherhood and his “strong ties” to that organization. It was another part of his answer, however, that caught most readers’ attention.

This was his opening declaration about his ideological identity. “First of all,” he said, “I am not a jihadi, or a Salafi, and those who wish to wrap me in their ideological robe in spite of me will not succeed. Perhaps they will succeed in expelling me from their current [i.e., the jihadi current], and that would please me greatly. I have two identities: Muslim against the unbelievers in their various forms, and Sunni against the heretics. And that is enough.” Presumably, the question put to Abu Qatada was how his mourning of Khashoggi fit with his status as a major ideologue of Jihadi Salafism. His response was to say that he did not affiliate with any such movement. “I am not the leader of a current,” he said. “Let those who wish to curse me curse me. And let them reprimand me as they like.”

Abu Qatada’s repudiation of Jihadi Salafism naturally generated confusion among jihadis, who have long held him in high esteem. On October 10, he clarified his remarks in a fatwa analyzing the history of the jihadi movement since the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. In the early period of their history, he wrote, the jihadis, seeking to differentiate themselves, adopted the exclusivist Salafi theology and promoted a concept of jihad focused on the “near enemy,” that is, the “apostate” regimes in the Middle East. But these two components of the movement had failed, in his view, in rousing the Muslim masses to the cause of jihad. The events of 9/11, by focusing Muslim attention on the “far enemy,” succeeded to some extent  in uniting the umma with the jihadis, but since the Arab Spring the jihadis had once again alienated the umma by indulging in organizational and ideological infighting. A broader message and a more inclusive movement were therefore needed, and this would require transcending the jihadis’ traditional emphasis on Salafi theology and near-enemy jihad. In that sense, he said, he is neither a Salafi nor a jihadi.

A Syrian Taliban?

Abu Qatada can appear despondent at times, but he is keen on projecting optimism about the future. “I believe that jihad will soon spread, God willing, and that states will fall,” he wrote in his October 10 fatwa. But how that will happen, and how soon exactly, he does not say. He pictures the organizational and ideological divisions among jihadis as ephemeral, but also anticipates that there will be more of them. Among other things, he expects that the Islamic State will reconstitute itself and that “extremism” will remain a problem.

As regards the Syrian theater, one scenario that he entertains is the emergence of a unifying Islamic movement on the model of the Afghan Taliban. “History does not repeat itself completely,” he said in the same fatwa, “but this would be similar to [the Taliban] in some senses.” Is HTS the nucleus of a Syrian Taliban that he sees on the horizon? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Abu Qatada is not known for the clarity of his language; he is often accused of being vague and imprecise. In a post last week, he wrote, “I don’t know why people don’t understand and insist that [my] speech is difficult and hard, unclear and general!!!!” But an element of obfuscation and equivocation does in fact pervade his writing. It is often unclear what Abu Qatada stands for. At least he has made it clear where he does not stand.

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Cole Bunzel

Cole Bunzel, the editor of Jihadica, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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