Death of a Mufti: The Execution of the Islamic State’s Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi

For the October 2018 issue of the CTC Sentinel, I wrote about the case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi, a senior religious scholar in the Islamic State accused of treason and espionage by the group’s leadership in eastern Syria. According to Mu’assasat al-Turath al-‘Ilmi (“The Scholarly Heritage Foundation”), a dissident Islamic State media outlet, Abu Ya‘qub was arrested by the Security Department (Diwan al-Amn) back in July 2018; the next month, on August 30, 2018, the charges against him were read aloud in parts of eastern Syria controlled by the Islamic State, a stunt seen as portending his execution.

Since then, two things have changed. The first is that Abu Ya‘qub, a Jordanian whose real name is Yusuf ibn Ahmad Simrin, has been killed—according to Mu’assasat al-Turath, executed. On December 4, 2018, the dissident media outlet confirmed his death at the hands of the Security Department, stating that the latter was giving the impression that he had died in an airstrike when in fact he had been killed earlier. The airstrike in question occurred on November 28. As Mu’assasat al-Turath then reported, it took the lives of several of Abu Ya‘qub’s scholarly allies—Abu Hafs al-Hamdani, Abu Mus‘ab al-Sahrawi, and Abu Usama al-Gharib—who were being “imprisoned unjustly in the prisons of the Security Department,” or “the department of the oppressors at war with the allies of God.” On December 5, 2018, Mu’assasat al-Turath confirmed the death of another scholar, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, in the same airstrike.

The significance of these deaths lies in the fact that these men were party to a serious ideological dispute that has riven the Islamic State for some time. Abu Ya‘qub and his allies have represented the relatively moderate side of this dispute—moderate in the sense of being somewhat more cautious in approach to takfir, or excommunication—as against those they have labeled extremists—extremist in the sense of embracing a more expansive approach to takfir—who are concentrated in the Security Department, the Central Media Department (Diwan al-I‘lam al-Markazi), and to some extent the Delegated Committee (al-Lajna al-Mufawwada). Even though these scholars succeeded, in September 2017, in having their theological views formally adopted by the Islamic State in an audio series on takfir, which was written by Abu Ya‘qub and al-Masri, their influence declined quickly thereafter. Beginning in December 2017, according to Mu’assasat al-Turath, the scholars were subjected to periodic incarceration. The death of these five men may well be a knockout blow to this scholarly faction advocating a more nuanced approach to takfir, though others of their ilk remain.

The second thing that has changed in the intervening period is that the full charge sheet against Abu Ya‘qub that was read out in late August 2018 has been leaked online. On December 8, 2018, the Telegram account “And Rouse the Believers,” which is associated with the most takfir-prone elements of the Islamic State, uploaded an audio recording of a man reading a document with the charges. As the speaker indicates, the document is titled “Clarifying the Case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi.” Its purpose is to disabuse Abu Ya‘qub’s supporters of the notion that he is an embattled and persecuted scholar á la Ibn Taymiyya. Previously, only some of the content of the charge sheet was available. In early September 2018, two written defenses of Abu Ya‘qub appeared online that referred to it. The first, an open letter by a number of unnamed Islamic State scholars, took up some of the charges leveled against him, refuting them one by one. (The scholars here repeatedly call Abu Ya‘qub the “mufti” of the Islamic State and the “author of its creed.” The mufti designation presumably refers to the fact that Abu Ya‘qub succeeded the Bahraini Turki al-Bin‘ali as emir of the Office of Research and Studies, following the latter’s demise in May 2017; the second description alludes to his co-authorship of the audio series on takfir from September 2017.) The second defense, penned by a certain Ghandar al-Mujahir, took the same approach, refuting some of the charges in turn, but was further valuable in quoting a few of them.

Below is my translation of “Clarifying the Case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi” as I have transcribed it from the audio recording. The author of this statement, according to Mu’assasat al-Turath, is the “governor of al-Sham,” whom Ghandar al-Muhajir identifies as a certain ‘Abd al-Qadir. (Previously, Mu’assasat al-Turath referred to the governor of al-Sham as Hajji Hamid, which could be another name for the same person.) The scene of the recording appears to be a small gathering of Islamic State members in eastern Syria, some of whom are sympathetic to Abu Ya‘qub. In several additional audio clips uploaded by “And Rouse the Believers” (see here, here, here, and here), these men can be heard pleading Abu Ya‘qub’s case, asking that he be allowed to repent. The response from the man in charge is that Abu Ya‘qub has committed apostasy, the implication being that he is to be put to death.

The veracity of the charges aside, the document forms a unique window onto the mindset of the men in control of the last bastion of Islamic State territory in eastern Syria. As one can see, they have been—or at least were at the time of the document—worried about the possibility of dissent spiraling out of control. Since dissent was concentrated in the personage of Abu Ya‘qub, cutting him down to size was necessary to stifling it and maintaining their grip on power. So also, it would seem, was cutting him down.


Clarifying the Case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi

Praise belongs to God, Empowerer of Islam by His help, Abaser of polytheism by His mastery, Manager of affairs by His command, Lurer to destruction of the unbelievers by His plot, Who decreed the days to turn by His justice. And prayers and peace be upon him by whose sword God raised high the lighthouse of Islam. To proceed:

To all of our mujahid brothers and sons in the Province of al-Baraka,1 may God protect them. Peace be upon you, and the mercy of God and His blessings.

We are writing you today to settle the dispute and put an end to the rumors concerning a matter that has been the subject of much back and forth, to the point that it has nearly lit the fuse of dissension (fitna) between the brothers. In this state of affairs, we have found it necessary for us to intervene, though we regret the condition that we have reached in terms of the loss of trust from your side in your commanders. Indeed, we see this as one of the reasons for the weakness and diminishment at which we have arrived today vis-à-vis the enemies of God, where an observer considers us to be a body but our hearts are disunited (cf. Q. 59:14). Where is your trust in your commanders? Where is your goodwill towards them? Where is your construal of their actions in the most favorable light? Where are your scruples about reviling them and their honor? O mujahidin, are we blood-shedders, whose only interest is the spilling of blood such that we will descend upon innocent blood, imprisoning this one or killing that one for no reason other than that we are displeased with their actions? Do you not fear God with regard to us, O sons and brothers of ours? By God, this has never been our way of interacting with our commanders. It has not been our practice to oppose them in any matter so long as they do not command us to sin, God forbid. Rather, we have learned to construe their actions in the most favorable light, to treat them with reverence and respect, and to accord them the greatest possible goodwill. Nonetheless, we spared them no counsel, but rather we would advise and criticize, though within the boundaries of right conduct for advising and criticizing. And we did not rouse anyone against them, or inform against them to a soldier, or publicly condemn any one of them with epithets far from their proper meaning. All this has caused one person to bear advice and another to rouse the believers, though all we see him doing is rousing the soldiers against their commanders. The names have been many but their objectives have been one, namely, to split the ranks of the monotheists and sow division among the mujahidin. In this they have succeeded to a certain degree, and there is no power and no might save in God.

O mujahidin, is it to this extent that you see us as unscrupulous with God’s servants that some have begun to popularize Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi as Ahmad ibn Hanbal and the Ibn Taymiyya of this age, for no reason other than that we imprisoned him for something that he committed? Were any of you in our position, you would have done far worse to him than we.

Indeed, we are writing you about the case of Abu Ya‘qub al-Maqdisi to clarify some of the matters that, because of their being obscure to many of the brothers, have led some of you to this condition of mistrust of us and what we have done with this man. So here is some of what has been proven against this man in the past and in the present:

[1] The shaykh, the commander of the believers [i.e., Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi], may God protect him, previously sat with him and with the Shari‘a officials (shar‘iyyin); he reached an agreement with them on a number of issues, and they made a pact with him concerning these. Among them was the agreement that no Shari‘a-related content was to be released without consulting the Department of the Caliph (Diwan al-Khalifa), and that whoever did otherwise was to be subject to the greatest of punishments. This was the request of Abu Ya‘qub himself at the time. However, Abu Ya‘qub did not abide by this. He released a number of books without the knowledge of the Department of the Caliph, knowing that he had asked the commander of the believers, may God protect him, to release some of the books and that the commander of the believers had put off his request until after the shaykh [i.e., Baghdadi] could read them himself. Abu Ya‘qub agreed to this; then he released the books without consulting the commander of the believers, may God protect him. Then the commander of the believers, may God protect him, asked Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Tamimi,2 may God accept him, to imprison al-Maqdisi, and he was placed in prison. Abu Ya‘qub lied to al-Tamimi, saying that the book had been released without his knowledge and that he had not even finished it. So al-Tamimi solicited an excuse for him, and Abu Ya‘qub left prison having been warned and pledging to him not to repeat this. Then he repeated this a number of times. Therefore, he is a liar and a stirrer of dissent against the Department of the Caliph (Diwan al-Khalifa).

[2] Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, may God accept him, informed the Department of the Caliph that Abu Ya‘qub had not obeyed orders following his release from prison and had refused to go to the frontlines. Therefore, in our view, he is a weakling and a coward.

[3] Abu Ya‘qub lied during questioning concerning his spying on Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Furqan,3 may God accept him, on behalf of the wicked Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.4 At first he lied about this, while later he admitted that he had sent secrets of the [Islamic] State to Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi indirectly. Therefore, he is a spy and a liar.

[4] Among the reasons for his detention recently is his collecting the archive of the distant provinces. This is one of the most serious matters of all, as it [i.e., the archive] contains all the information of the distant provinces of the Islamic State—Libya, Khurasan, Yemen, Somalia, and West Africa, among other provinces—including numbers, supplies, weapons, and distribution areas, among other things. During interrogation with him concerning the archive and how he obtained it, he related more than five stories, all of them untrue. Then, when he saw that there was no escaping the matter, he said that he stole it from the computer of Abu Ahmad al-‘Iraqi,5 may God accept him. This was his admission after lying five times about how he came into possession of this archive. The entirety of this interrogation is preserved in an audio recording. We do not know if he was truthful in the end or if he lied again as in the previous five instances.

[5] [Also among the reasons for his detention recently is] his possession of the archives of a number of departments and committees that we found with him. He has been collecting all of the internal and external secrets of the [Islamic] State, which do not concern him, knowing that the discovery of these with him would mean death. He admitted that he said this in his own words  to one of the brothers, and nonetheless he continued to keep them [i.e., the archives]. This is one of the most serious matters, and we do not know what motivated him to do this. Likewise, we do not know if he leaked them to anyone, whether directly or indirectly, as he did previously in passing secrets of the [Islamic] State to al-Maqdisi.

[6] He is contributing to the creation of a fracture in the community of Muslims on the pretext of the commanders’ oppressiveness, taking advantage of the brothers’ ignorance. This is a serious matter, as he is undermining the security of the mujahidin and the stability of the community. It has not been long since the case of the [brothers in] the Media and their refraining from work,6 in which by his act he rendered a service on a golden platter to the intelligence RAND Corporation, which mentioned months before that it would demolish the media establishment of the Islamic State and work to bring it down.

[7] Abu Ya‘qub lied to the commander of the believers, may God protect him, that he had no ties connecting him to the heretical Abu Muhammad al-Hashimi.7 Then it was confirmed to us, by his own admission, that he was in contact with him and even knew his hiding place when he was wanted, before he fled the lands of the Islamic State. This he did not tell the shaykh [i.e., Baghdadi], knowing that the shaykh had informed all the Shari‘a officials, including al-Maqdisi, of the seriousness of what al-Hashimi had done and declared his blood licit before them. Therefore, he is a traitor, a supporter of the criminal Abu Muhammad al-Hashimi, and a provider of cover for him despite knowing the gravity of his crime and the harm that he did to the Muslims.

[8] His incitement against the community by saying that al-Hashimi was correct in his criticism of the [Islamic] State. This has been confirmed by the testimony of witnesses as well as by his own admission. This he said while being, in the eyes of the brothers, the scholar from whom fatwas are to be sought and who is close to the caliph, may God protect him. Therefore, we will not reprove the brothers in general after this, if that were the opinion of the elite and the commanders.

[9] He caused unrest in the ranks of the [Islamic] State when he gathered the Shari‘a officials together in a conference in order, in their words, to put pressure on the leadership to submit to their demands and to urge them not to go to the frontlines.

[10] It has not been proven to us that he went to the frontlines or participated in military operations. Rather, on the contrary, when Shaykh [Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman] al-Tamimi, may God accept him, appointed him to go to battle, he stayed behind and did not join up.

[11] It has been proven to us, and confirmed by his own admission, that he has been in communication with the heretical Abu Suhayb al-Najdi and sought funds from him. The heretical al-Najdi then undertook to transfer funds to him, and he obtained those funds.

[12] It has been proven that he is in possession of the stamp of the emir of the Office of Research and Studies, a red stamp with a logo. When he was asked about it, he claimed that he had kept it out of laziness and neglect. Perhaps it will be clear to anyone with reason that turning over one’s stamp upon going from one job to the next is an elementary part of the job. What, then, if it is an emir of a committee or a department or a central office and his stamp is red in color? In light of what we have related of his lying and treachery, which have been proven by his own admission and by evidence, can anyone blame us if we suspect that it was he who was leaking the files of Research and Fatwas [i.e., the Office of Research and Studies] to the media from time to time? Indeed, the writings may not be old ones, as the archive is with him and the stamp is with him. All he would have to do is backdate the text and publish it on the internet as if it were an old document.

[13] Issuing fatwas to the brothers in matters that contravene the methodology of the people of the sunna and the community. This is the least serious of what he has done, yet it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, coming as a coda to his previous acts of espionage, mendacity, and betrayal of what he had vowed and was entrusted with. It was after this that he was arrested, though it was not the principal cause of the arrest.8

In conclusion, by God, we did not desire to reveal all of these things and disseminate them among the brothers, yet when we saw that there were those trying to defend his case, feigning ignorance of his wrongdoing, and seeking to fashion a general opinion of support for him, it became necessary for us to give an explanation to our soldiers, as an excuse before our Lord (cf. Q. 7:164) and in order that there not remain for the admirer any particular specious argument. There are those who have begun mentioning him from the pulpits, saying that he is the scholar being tried [by God], and that he is like Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya, implying that we are like their imprisoners. God forbid that we are those who would imprison a godly scholar for merely coming out with the truth as he sees it. When we saw all of this, it became incumbent upon us to relate what we have related, lest it lead to the dishonoring of a man from among the mujahidin, and in order that everyone bear responsibility for his words after this announcement, not talking about what he knows not and causing division in the ranks of the mujahidin.

And may God reward you.

1. As noted by the BBC in October 2018, the Province of al-Baraka (Wilayat al-Baraka) “previously used to describe the northeastern province of Hasaka,” but it “appears to have moved around 200 km south,” to the area of Deir al-Zour.

2. Former governor (wali) of Raqqa Province (Wilayat al-Raqqa), and then a member of the Delegated Committee. See Risalat al-Majlis al-‘Ilmi fi bayan hal ghulat Diwan al-I‘lam, December 2018, p. 4; see further the translation and analysis by Aymenn al-Tamimi.

3. Former head of the Central Media Department (d. September 7, 2016).

4. Jordanian-Palestinian jihadi scholar in Jordan who has opposed the Islamic State.

5. Former head of the Security Department. See Risalat al-Majlis al-‘Ilmi, p. 7.

6. The reference here is to an episode in March 2018 when 40 or so Islamic State officials complained about the Media Department’s domination by extremists in takfir. Following their complaint, they were given a choice between continuing to work for the Media Department or heading to battle. Mu’assasat al-Turath has said that Abu Ya‘qub supported those who complained, but it denies that he issued a fatwa against working anywhere but the military.

7. Former official in the Office of Research and Studies who wrote a book highly critical of the Islamic State, al-Nasiha al-Hashimiyya (“The Hashimi Advice”).

8. This appears to refer to his arrest on July 11, 2018 for allegedly issuing a fatwa prohibiting those in the Islamic State from working in any part of the caliphate besides the military. It will be recalled that Mu’assasat al-Turath denies this charge.

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Cole Bunzel

Cole Bunzel, the editor of Jihadica, is a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of "Wahhābism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement."

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