Kill the Caliph! The Islamic State’s evolution from an integrated to a fragmented group

In 2016, the two scholars Haroro Ingram and Craig Whiteside argued in an article on War on the Rocksthat we should not try too hard to kill the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In fact, they said, it would be better to leave him alive. Their view was that it would be wiser to leave al-Baghdadi as the caliph in charge of the demise of the group’s territorial caliphate, essentially positioning him as the authority in charge of its collapse and hopefully leaving him as an unpopular figure with little sway among group members and little ability to lead its resurgence. Well aware that this is an entirely theoretical discussion—if we obtain knowledge of al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts there is no chance that he will not be killed—I agreed with the authors at the time the article was published. But as the context has now changed I am increasingly convinced

Read More »

Divine Test or Divine Punishment? Explaining Islamic State Losses

Since it began losing territory in Iraq and Syria in 2016, the Islamic State’s official line for explaining its losses has been that God is subjecting the believers to a test or trial (tamhis, ibtila’). The theme was introduced in May 2016 by Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, the Islamic State’s official spokesman until his death later that year, in an audio address recalling the struggles of the Islamic State of Iraq between 2006 and 2012. Al-‘Adnani reminded listeners of “God’s practice of testing and trying the mujahidin,” hinting that more of the same lay in store. In October 2016, an editorial in the Islamic State’s official Arabic weekly, al-Naba’, spoke similarly of God’s habit of “trying the believers with misfortune and hardship … before God’s victory will descend upon them.” In other words, so the message goes, take heart and despair not, for the divine tribulation will surely pass and the

Read More »

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s Internal Conflict and Renewed Tensions with Hurras al-Deen

On 1 February Abu al-Yaqzan al-Masri, a senior religious official (shar‘i) representing the hardliner wing within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), announced his defection from the group. Al-Masri’s decision came as a direct response to a recent interview with Abu Muhammed al-Julani, the amir of HTS, in which he gave his support to Turkey’s planned operations against the Kurds in northeast Syria. HTS’s rapprochement with Turkey has long been a sensitive issue causing problems both within the group and between HTS and al-Qaida-aligned figures. In a speech published on 5 February 2019, al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri reiterated his criticisms of HTS, albeit not mentioning the group explicitly. Al-Masri, who allegedly was arrested by HTS following his defection, has long been a critical voice within HTS. As recently as 30 December 2018, he said in a videotaped sermon in Idlib that Turkey’s battle against the Kurdish YPG is “between a secular army and a secular,

Read More »
AQ Central
Bernard Haykel

Messages to Arabia: Al-Qaida Attacks MBS and the Saudi Monarchy

Since the early 1990s, al-Qaida has routinely vilified the Saudi royal family and its government for being un-Islamic and illegitimate, describing the monarchy and the princes as apostates who should be attacked and toppled from power. The gist of al-Qaida’s condemnation of the Saudi rulers is that they are lackeys of the West who only pretend to be Muslim and therefore need to be fought and deposed. The Saudi royals have consistently undermined Islam from within and are delivering Islam’s wealth to the West—Arabia’s vast oil and gas reserves—at well below market value. Because of this, the Saudi dynasty’s real nature has to be revealed and the Saudi state destroyed. Every al-Qaida leader has vilified the Saudis in this way, from Usama bin Ladin to his son and putative heir, Hamza. The latter, in 2016, launched a six-part audio series seeking to expose the Saudi royal family’s history of “betrayal.” Anti-Saudi

Read More »

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

Read More »

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

Read More »

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

Read More »

From Goods and Services to Counterterrorism: Local Messaging in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s Propaganda

[Editor’s Note: Jihadica is pleased to welcome Lina Raafat and Charles Lister. Lina is a research assistant for the Extremism & Counter-Terrorism Program at the Middle East Institute. Her research focuses on militant propaganda with a particular focus on foreign fighter mobilization and logics of martyrdom. Charles is a senior fellow and the director of the Extremism & Counter-Terrorism Program at the Middle East Institute.] The fall of southwestern Syria to Bashar al-Assad’s regime marked a significant turning point in the Syrian conflict, effectively shifting attention to the northwestern province of Idlib, the last remaining opposition stronghold. Home to a wide array of armed resistance groups, including groups with former and current ties to al-Qaeda, as well as defeated opposition fighters recently exiled from elsewhere in Syria, Idlib’s dynamics are incredibly complex and warrant special consideration. As the threat of an impending regime offensive continues to develop, with both Russia and

Read More »

How Turkey and the election of Erdogan are fragmenting the Jihadi movement

What to make of Turkey is arguably the most controversial issue in the Jihadi movement in Syria today. Is it to be seen as an infidel state? Is its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to be considered an apostate? Is collaboration with Turkey religiously legitimate? What should be the attitude to Erdogan’s victory in last week’s election? These are some of the questions that have bedeviled Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Jihadi group previously affiliated with al-Qaida in an earlier incarnation, and have become the most serious source of division between the group and the al-Qaida loyalists organized in Tanzim Hurras al-Din. HTS’s balancing act Previously, HTS appeared vehemently opposed to any relationship with the Turks, even criticizing groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Deen al-Zinki for cooperating with Turkey on a diplomatic and military level. This was to change radically, however, when HTS openly assisted Turkish forces entering north-western Syria

Read More »

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

Read More »
Latest Jihadica