ji·had·ica

Understating Zarqawi

In his recent article for The Atlantic, “The True Origins of ISIS,” Hassan Hassan makes two related claims concerning the provenance of the Islamic State. One is that analysts have overstated the role of Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaida in Iraq who died in 2006, in crafting the group’s “dark vision”; the other is that the Iraqi religious scholar Abu ‘Ali al-Anbari (né ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli), who died in 2016, played the greater role in this regard. “It was Anbari, Zarqawi’s No. 2 in his al-Qaeda years, who defined the Islamic State’s radical approach more than any other person,” Hassan writes. “[H]is influence was more systematic, longer lasting, and deeper than that of Zarqawi.” What is more, he contends, “Zarqawi was likely influenced by Anbari, not the other way around.” I am not convinced of these conclusions, primarily because the basis presented for them—a 96-page biography of

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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

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A House Divided: Origins and Persistence of the Islamic State’s Ideological Divide

Last month, a jihadi Telegram user called “And Rouse the Believers” leaked a series of documents related to the Islamic State’s internal ideological rift. As discussed in a previous post, this dispute revolves around the doctrine of excommunication (takfir), and specifically whether those hesitating or refusing to excommunicate unbelievers are themselves to be excommunicated. Heading up the more moderate side in this debate was Turki al-Bin‘ali, the emir of the Islamic State’s Office of Research and Studies, until his death in an airstrike in May 2017. The more extremist side was represented by the Delegated Committee, the Islamic State’s executive council, until Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reconstituted it late last year and instituted a theological compromise of sorts. “And Rouse the Believers,” whose name comes from Qur’an 4:84, is something of an anomaly: he is even more extreme than the extremists in this contest, believing that the Islamic State has lost

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Caliphate in Disarray: Theological Turmoil in the Islamic State

On May 31 of this year, Turki al-Bin‘ali, one of the Islamic State’s foremost religious authorities, was killed in Mayadin, Syria in an airstrike carried out by the U.S.-led coalition. Three weeks later, U.S. Central Command confirmed the death of “Turki al-Bin’ali, the self-proclaimed ‘Grand Mufti,’ or chief cleric, of ISIS.” His supporters online bemoaned his loss, circulating his “last will and testament” from June 2015, and in some cases composing commemorative poems (see here and here). The international media also took an interest in his death, CNN, for instance, reporting that “[o]ne of ISIS’ most important figures has been killed by an airstrike.” The Islamic State’s own media outlets, however, were noticeably silent on the matter. There was to be no official statement regarding the demise of the 32-year-old cleric from Bahrain, let alone any kind of eulogy. The reasons, it now seems, are clear. At the time of

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Abandoning al-Qaida: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Sami al-‘Uraydi

The last few weeks have seen a widening of the rift in the jihadi world between proponents and critics of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the former al-Qaida affiliate in Syria originally known as Jabhat al-Nusra. As detailed in a previous post, this dispute centers on the group’s perceived deviation from the strict principles of jihadi salafism and its alleged abandonment of al-Qaida. Leading the charge has been Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the influential jihadi scholar in Jordan who has accused it of adopting a “diluted” methodology and of cutting ties with the parent group without the express permission of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Maqdisi’s chief ideological ally in this venture has been the younger Sami al-‘Uraydi, a Jordanian ex-shari‘a official in Jabhat al-Nusra living somewhere in Syria. Unlike al-Maqdisi, al-‘Uraydi’ is a member of al-Qaida bound by a loyalty oath to Zawahiri, so naturally his critique has focused more on the purported

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Diluting Jihad: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi

It has been widely assumed in Western capitals that the latest incarnation of Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (née Jabhat al-Nusra), remains fundamentally unchanged. It may have publicly renounced ties to al-Qaida back in July 2016 and softened its rhetoric somewhat, so the thinking goes, but it has not transformed itself in any meaningful way. It is still al-Qaida through and through. Don’t tell that, however, to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the preeminent Jihadi-Salafi scholar living in Jordan who vehemently disputes all of the above. Indeed, the problem with this portrayal of Tahrir al-Sham is that it ignores the existence of a profound controversy in jihadi circles surrounding the nature of the group, which some argue has lost its way. According to these critics, al-Maqdisi chief among them, not only was the break with al-Qaida real as opposed to superficial, it was never actually endorsed by al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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Jabhat al-Nusra’s Rebranding in the Eyes of the Islamic State

When Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, announced on July 28, 2016 that he was dissolving his group and setting up a new one, Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS, “the Front for the Conquest of Sham”), that would not be subordinate to al-Qaida, he put to rest more than a year of speculation that such a move was in the offing. Jabhat al-Nusra had been, after all, prepared to end its formal relationship with al-Qaida. But in settling one question Jawlani raised two more: Was Jabhat al-Nusra (now JFS) really distancing itself from the terrorist organization? And had al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri really given this separation (real or nominal) his blessing? The first question is perhaps best left to governments and journalists, but there is at least one reason to see the rebranding as more than superficial. This is that Jawlani’s maneuver alienated a number of

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“Come Back to Twitter”: A Jihadi Warning Against Telegram

It is hard to avoid a feeling of déjà vu. Back in 2013, an established al-Qaida ideologue lamented the decline of the jihadi web forums, warning users against migrating to social media platforms Twitter and Facebook and calling for a revival of the forums as the “main theater” of internet jihad. The appeal of course failed to persuade, as the platforms, and Twitter in particular, surged in popularity and left the forums in the dust. Fast forward three years, and again things are changing. Now, a jihadi author is lamenting the decline of the social media platforms, warning users against migrating to Telegram, an encrypted messaging service, and calling for the revival of Twitter and Facebook as the locus of web-based jihad. The al-Qaida ideologue from 2013, while ultimately unpersuasive, was right on one count. He predicted that a day would come when the social media platforms would “shut their

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The Islamic State of Decline: Anticipating the Paper Caliphate

It is still too early to predict the collapse of the Islamic State, but it is telling that the group’s own media, which usually keep to a narrative of unstoppable progress and battlefield success, have begun signaling decline. Last week, an editorial in the most recent issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter, al-Naba’ (“News”), well captured this new outlook. Titled “The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate,” it offers a grim view of the future, both for the Islamic State and for those seeking to destroy it. I provide a full translation below. Much of the editorial echoes the downbeat sentiments expressed by the Islamic State’s official spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, in his recent audio statement of May 21 of this year. While in that statement ‘Adnani was sure to project a measure of confidence, remarking that the Islamic State is “becoming stronger with each passing

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Has al-Maqdisi Softened on the Islamic State?

Two months ago, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the leading Jihadi-Salafi scholar known for his fierce opposition to the Islamic State and support for al-Qaida, released an essay that was widely interpreted as a softening of his position toward the Islamic State. As Hassan Hassan recently pointed out, al-Maqdisi has made other pronouncements of late that would seem to point in the same direction, including a December 2015 tweet in which he said: “There is nothing to stop me from reassessing my position towards the [Islamic] State and enraging the entire world by supporting it…” But is al-Maqdisi really ready to reassess his position? The answer is no, though he has added a little nuance and hope to it over the past year. In the same tweet, al-Maqdisi conditioned his potential reassessment on “the Islamic State reassessing its position toward excommunicating, killing, and slandering those Muslims who oppose it.” He knows that

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