The Extremist Wing of the Islamic State

[Welcome to Tore Hamming, a PhD candidate at the European University Institute working on inter-movement dynamics within Sunni Jihadism with a special focus on the al-Qaida-Islamic State relationship. You can follow him on Twitter @Torerhamming.]


In a chapter titled “Destructive Doctrinarians,” the author Brynjar Lia describes Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s critique of Salafi rigidity in doctrinal matters. Suri, a Syrian strategist associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and later al-Qaida, fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and was a supporter of the Taliban. Unlike Suri, many of the Arab foreign fighters in the region despised the Taliban, especially the Saudis and Egyptians who considered them religiously deviant.[1] According to Suri, their extreme focus on correct doctrine became a severe obstacle to successful jihad.[2]

There is a similar debate today inside the Islamic State, despite the group’s reputation for religious extremism and uniform belief.[3] The hardline of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is soft in the eyes of some of his followers, and the very doctrine the State uses to justify violence against its enemies is being turned in on itself.

Fragmentation within the Islamic State

In a recent interview this author did with an al-Qaida sympathizer, the interviewee described how the Islamic State ideologically can be divided into two movements: People following Turki al-Bin’ali, the Head of the Fatwa Committee in the Islamic State, and people following Ahmad al-Hāzimi, a Saudi Salafi sheikh imprisoned in the kingdom since April 2015.[4] Because of the rivalry between al-Qaida and the Islamic State one always have to be careful with accusations made by one group about the other, but when looking further into the debate and discussing it with Islamic State supporters,[5] it is clear that a dispute is ongoing between the two factions.

The dispute has to do with whether someone can be excommunicated if they are ignorant of a religious requirement. The Hāzimis, as the followers of Ahmad al-Hāzimi are referred to, adopt the position that ignorance is no excuse and argue that those who excuse the ignorant are themselves infidels. This position eventually led one of the trend’s most prominent figures to excommunicate Abu Bakr al-Baghdādī. The dispute has now spread to include senior theorists within or at least affiliated with the Islamic State and has filtered down to its rank-and-file members who discuss the matter intensively on platforms like Twitter and Telegram. The initial response of Islamic State was to handle the issue by executing the proponents of the Hāzimi trend.

In September 2014, the Islamic State executed one of its Shari’a judges Husain Rida Lare (aka Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti) under mysterious circumstances. Originally from Kuwait, Abu Umar allegedly entered Syria in 2012 where he established the Soldiers of the Caliphate battalion, which developed into Jama’at al-Muslimin before finally pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.[6] Already before joining the Islamic State, the vocal Abu Umar became infamous for his takfīri inclination when he pronounced takfīr on Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.[7] As a Shari’a judge in the Islamic State Abu Umar also argued in favor of pronouncing takfīr on Ayman al-Zawahiri because the al-Qaida leader was unwilling to make takfīr on the Shia as a group; he claimed that Zawahiri was subscribing to the principle of ignorance as an excuse.[8]

Abu Umar finally proclaimed al-Baghdadi to be an infidel. The Islamic State responded by executing him for his “excessive takfīri tendencies”.[9]

Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti was a follower of the so-called Hāzimi trend within the Islamic State, which refers to followers of the Saudi sheikh Ahmad al-Hāzimi. The currently-imprisoned Hāzimi is not officially part of the Islamic State, but many of his followers are. Hāzimi is the main proponent of the principle that ignorance is not an excuse and he claims furthermore that if a person does not excommunicate a Muslim who merits it then he becomes an infidel himself.[10] Based on this principle, Zawahiri is considered an infidel because he does not excommunicate the Shia and Baghdadi is an infidel because he did not excommunicate Zawahiri.

A member of the Islamic State told me that the “al-Hāzimi manhaj [methodology] ideology is forbidden within Dawlah [the Islamic State] due to its extremism and wrong understanding of the 3rd nullifier of Islam”.[11] In the words of the former Saudi mufti Abdelaziz bin Baz, the third nullifier of Islam refers to “Whoever does not hold the polytheists to be disbelievers, or has doubts about their disbelief or considers their ways and beliefs to be correct, has committed disbelief.”[12] To say that this Hāzimi ideology is forbidden within the Islamic State is probably a too formalistic way of looking at it as – at least to the author’s knowledge.

No official ruling or communication has been issued on the matter by Islamic State officials. However, it is clear that the Hāzimis are not being tolerated within the movement. When I first asked an Islamic State source whether he knew of “al-Hāzimi”, he answered “Hāzimi the takfīri?” This sums up how al-Hāzimi and his followers are perceived even within the Islamic State.

Ahmad al-Hāzimi himself has not commented on the dispute between his followers and the Islamic State. This is partly because he has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since 28 April 2015 and thus prevented from any public comments; it’s also because he tries to abstain from engaging in this kind of discussion. Hence you will not find lectures of Hāzimi pronouncing takfīr on anyone or commenting on tangible disputes. He is rather providing the interpretations, or tools, that his eager followers can then apply. Another example of such ‘facilitation’ is when Hāzimi argues that everyone can proclaim takfīr on a group or an individual and that it is not a privilege of religious scholars,[13] thus enabling his followers to attack people they do not consider to follow the correct manhaj (methodology).

The Islamic State leadership’s clamp down on proponents of the Hāzimi trend did not stop with the execution of Abu Umar al-Kuwaiti. In August 2014, the month before Abu Umar was executed, a number of second rank Islamic State leaders and members were arrested also charged with accusations of excessive takfīr. The most prominent were Abu Jāfar Al-Hattab and Abu Musāb Al-Tunisi. Al-Hattab, a former member of the Shari’a Committee of the Tunisian Ansar al-Shari’a group, had released an audio recording declaring his view on takfīr including his rejection of ignorance as an excuse to excommunicate other Muslims. Some supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State accused al-Hattab of issuing a fatwa stating that all opponents of the Islamic State are infidels, much like the GIA fatwa from 1996[14] that proclaimed takfīr on the entire Algerian population. Al-Tunisi was emir in Deir ez-Zour, but became unpopular within the Islamic State ranks when he allegedly called the Taliban and former al-Qaida leader Usama bin Laden infidels.[15] Although al-Tunisi himself dismissed the takfīr charge as hypothetical, he clearly falls into the Hāzimi trend. He also pronounced takfīr on AQIM and Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia.[16] Like al-Kuwaiti, al-Hattab and al-Tunisi were executed by the Islamic State[17] although little information seem to exist on al-Tunisi’s death. Other supporters of the doctrine were arrested.


Takfīr on Twitter

The dispute within the Islamic State has recently erupted again online. Since the start of May this year, several long debates between Bin’ali supporters and the Hāzimis have taken place on Twitter,[18] with each side accusing the other of extremism and deviance. Supporters of the Bin’ali trend frame Hāzimis as khawārij and ghulāt (extremist) while claiming their methodology results in “chain takfīr”. The Hāzimis retort that Bin’ali’s supporters are murji’a (“postponers” who accept the principle of ignorance as excuse) and that their loyalty is to people rather than to God.

The recent resurgence of the dispute has not gone unnoticed in official Islamic State circles. On 12 May 2016 an Islamic State affiliated Telegram channel[19] (re-)published several pieces on the issue of takfīr as a critique of the Hāzimi trend. First, it re-published an explanation titled “Details regarding the questions of takfīr on al ‘āthir” by the Saudi sheikh ‘Alī Al Khudayr, originally from March 2016, in which he gives his interpretation of the third nullifier of Islam.[20] This was followed by a piece on the Ansaru Khilafah website on the same topic, but attached with the Islamic State’s official interpretation of the third nullifier as it is taught at their military camps.[21] From this document it is clear that the Islamic State’s position on takfīr follows the interpretation of Turki al-Bin’ali rather than the Hāzimis.

This is not the first time that the Islamic State feels the need to engage in the dispute. Al Ghuraba Media Foundation, which is an unofficial Islamic State communication channel, previously published four articles and one book criticizing the methodology of Ahmad al-Hāzimi.

The Islamic State also continues to crackdown on followers of the Hāzimi in its ranks. A Hāzimi source, who does not consider himself part of the Islamic State, told me that the Islamic State recently executed another 15 Hāzimi supporters and that many have been put in prison. This raises the question, why are the Hāzimi joining the Islamic State in the first place and why do they not leave the movement when they come under attack? This there are no clear answers when talking to both Bin’ali supporters and Hāzimis. Perhaps it’s because the Islamic State is the Jihadi-Salafi movement that comes closest to the doctrine and manhaj of the Hāzimis. Perhaps many Hāzimis joined the Islamic State before they were influenced by the teachings of Ahmad al-Hāzimi. Or perhaps leaving the Islamic State is not as easy as one may imagine. As another Hāzimi source told me, they are often not welcome in their countries of origin and, the Islamic State will kill them if they try to leave. But as it is now, staying within the Islamic State but sticking to their belief seems just as dangerous for the Hāzimis.

A Path to Self-Destruction?

In her book ‘The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction’, Nelly Lahoud argues that jihadis’ reliance on the concept of al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ (loyalty and disavowal) will eventually lead to the movement’s fragmentation and destruction. When the latter part of the concept, disavowal, is taken to its extreme it results in groups or individuals excommunicating one another. This was what happened with some Kharijite groups during Islam’s second civil war and the Islamic State confronts the same problem today.

So far, the confrontation between supporters of the Bin’ali and the Hāzimis has not destroyed the Islamic State as an organization. The Hāzimis are a small minority within the organization and are not represented on a leadership level – especially not after the string of executions in 2014 when the Islamic State killed or imprisoned the leading proponents of the trend.

But excessive takfirism does run the risk of severely fragmenting a movement that is already showing signs of decay in some aspects. Twitter is now full of debates between the two trends, which extend far beyond the organization. The dispute is not about tactics, strategy, or power ambitions, which characterize the conflict between the Islamic State and al-Qaida. Rather, it is a doctrinal dispute over the acceptable boundaries of Muslim belief and practice. As an Islamic State supporter argues, “The dispute between the followers of Hāzimi is deeper than Dawla’s [Islamic State] dispute with JN [Jabhat al-Nusra]”. Although it will not cause the downfall of the Islamic State, the group’s leaders can no longer focus solely on the enemy outside. Its own extremism has bred a new enemy within that may one day challenge it just as ISIS challenged al-Qaeda.

[1] A survey conducted by jihadis in Afghanistan in the late 1980s shows that members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad believed “nothing is to be hoped for from the war in Afghanistan, nor will there arise an Islamic State there, on account of doctrinal/ideological defects among the leaders and the masses.” Paul Cruickshank, “Al-Qaeda’s New Course Examining Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Strategic Direction,” IHS, May 2012.

[2] Brynjar Lia, “‘Destructive Doctrinarians’: Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri’s Critique of the Salafis in the Jihadi Current,” in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, ed. R Meijer (London: Hurst & Company, 2009), 281–300.

[3] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, “March Forth to Sham!,” As-Sahab Media, May 2016, www.justpaste.it/u576.

[4] Author’s interview with Ahmad al-Hamdan, May 2016.

[5] Based on several interviews the author did with Islamic State supporters through Twitter, April-May 2016.

[6] Abdallah Suleiman Ali, “IS Disciplines Some Emirs to Avoid Losing Base,” Al Monitor, September 2, 2014, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/09/is-takfiri-caliphate.html.

[7] Jérôme Drevon, “How Syria’s War Is Dividing the Egyptian Jihadi Movement,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 9, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54139.

[8] Abdal Wahid Al-Ansari, “انقلب السحر.. «داعش» يكفّر بعضه بعضاً .. والبغدادي يَعتْقِلُ رجاله لـ«المناصحة»!,” Al-Hayat, 2014, http://www.alhayat.com/Articles/4257230/انقلب-السحر—-داعش–يكفّر-بعضه-بعضاً—-والبغدادي-يَعتْقِلُ-رجاله-لـ-المناصحة-. See also the following debate forum on this issue: http://www.dd-sunnah.net/forum/showthread.php?t=173503

[9] “ISIS Executes One of Its Sharia Judges,” Middle East Monitor, March 10, 2015, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20150310-isis-executes-one-of-its-sharia-judges/.

[10] For Hāzimi audio on ignorance as excuse, see Youtube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oURlSSItr4I

For Hāzimi audio on the pronouncement of takfir on a person who do not make takfir on a kāfir, see Youtube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuJkKXeivps

[11] Author’s interview with Islamic State supporter on Twitter, May 2016.

[12] For explanation of the Nullifiers of Islam, see Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Baz, “The Nullifiers of Islaam”: https://theclearsunnah.wordpress.com/2007/05/05/10-nullifiers-of-islam/

[13] See Ahmad al-Hāzimi, “Takfir is not a boogeyman,” [Youtube Video], 2016, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuJkKXeivps [Accessed May 11, 2016].

[14] Middle East Monitor, “ISIS Executes One of Its Sharia Judges.”

[15] Ali, “IS Disciplines Some Emirs to Avoid Losing Base.” and https://justpaste.it/el0d

[16] For Abu Musab al-Tunisi’s takfir on AQIM and Ansar al-Shari’a, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvHnfeaBQ9E

[17] Raniah Salloum, “Streit Über Scharia-Auslegung: IS Lässt Eigenen Richter Hinrichten,” Spiegel Online, March 12, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/islamischer-staat-koepft-seinen-schaerfsten-richter-a-1023127.html.

[18] For Twitter debates examples, see https://twitter.com/LaysalGhareebM/status/729713368550932481 and  https://twitter.com/Wideyed90/status/727028979593523200

[19] Link to the Telegram channel https://telegram.me/constantsofjihad7 [worked on 13/05/2016]

[20] Alī Al Khudayr, “Details Regarding the Masā’il of Takfīr on Al  ‘Āthir,” Published on March 17, 2016, https://justpaste.it/AliAlKhudayrAthir.

[21] Ansary Khilafa, “The Talk Regarding the Third Nullifier – a Light on the Matter,” May 11, 2016, https://ansarukhilafah.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/the-talk-regarding-the-third-nullifier-a-light-on-the-matter/.

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Tore Hamming

Tore Hamming is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King's College

14 Responses

  1. 1. you say the debate is ongoing today within the islamic state but later on you say correctly that the issue is more among the supporters online and has been dealt with as an issue among the soldiers, lack of clarity there

    2. you are simplifying the issue overmuch. this a common issue when non-scholars (rather merely western analysts) attempt to explain a complex theological issue to a general audience

    3. the member of IS who told you the hazimi belief is forbidden is correct, seems stupid of you to contradict him or cast doubt on this

    4. you state: “No official ruling or communication has been issued on the matter by Islamic State official” but then you later say “but attached with the Islamic State’s official interpretation of the third nullifier as it is taught at their military camps”
    you are contradicting yourself, one or the other is correct, and it is the case that the official position of dawla on this issue is in the public domain (here:https://ansarukhilafah.wordpress.com/)
    admittedly you may not have seen this, it being posted only a day ago but it is there on the site:translation of a circular released by the Central Office – in charge of Supervising the Shar’ee Offices in the Islamic State – regarding the recent debates regarding what was called erroneously by those involved in the debate as the “Takfeer al-‘Athir”.

    4. secondly you stupidly blame “Its own extremism” even though this is obviously an issue that has come from OUTSIDE the islamic state, from hazimi and his followers, and not from within

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