By proclaiming the re-establishment of the caliphate last June, the Islamic State has significantly stirred up the transnational jihadi landscape. Many characterized this bold claim to be a significant shift from the traditional jihadi organzations. Indeed, although striving to erect a global caliphate, al-Qa`ida and others have never pretended to be more than mere fighting groups. In contrast, the Islamic State projects itself as the sole legitimate Islamic body to which bay`a (allegiance) is due.
Though this development was occasionally deemed unprecedented, taking a historical perspective puts this supposed novelty in context. Two decades ago, al-Qa`ida and the broader Arab-Afghan community were already dealing with what they regarded as hardliners with invalid caliphal credentials. While little known outside militant circles, the name of this group, Jama`at al-Muslimin (JM), left vivid memories among those who witnessed its rise and subsequent downfall.
A Caliph in Training
The history of JM mainly revolves around the figure of Muhammad bin Isa bin Musa al-Rifa`i, also known by his noms de guerre Abu `Isa al-Rifa`i and Abu Hammam al-Filistini. Born in al-Zarqa in 1959, this Jordanian doctor of Palestinian origin began his activism with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the mid-1980s, Abu `Isa moved to Pakistan where he continued practicing medicine but was also involved in da`wa (missionary) activities and the support of the Afghan jihad. At the time, he came to interact with a number of notorious jihadi leaders, including Usama bin Ladin and `Abdallah `Azzam.
In the early 1990s, Abu `Isa returned to Jordan and eventually fell out with the Brotherhood on ideological grounds, as his stern beliefs on tawhid (God’s unicity) were on par with the party’s stance on political participation. Indeed, according to his former companion Abu al-Muntasir, by then Abu `Isa had “adopted the ideology of jihad”. Together, they created the group “al-Da`wa wa-al-Jihad”, later dismantled by the authorities. Abu `Isa was actively involved in propagating the Salafi-jihadi message, notably distributing the writings of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and calling for fighting against U.S. soldiers in Iraq during the Gulf War. According to Hasan Abu Haniyya, Abu `Isa emerged as a key player in shaping the Jordanian Salafi-jihadi current.
Along with some of his comrades, the radical preacher was arrested and jailed in the case of “Jaysh Muhammad” (Muhammad’s Army), a local faction founded by a Jordanian veteran of the Afghan jihad. After four months in prison, where he was tortured, Abu `Isa was released and migrated once again to Peshawar, likely around 1992.
A Leaderless Umma
To understand how Abu `Isa ended up claiming to be the caliph, one has to take into account the particular period in which he made his claim. As the senior Egyptian jihadist Abu al-Walid al-Misri remarks, the Arab-Afghan milieu was in dire shape at the time, especially owing to the leadership vacuum caused by `Abdallah `Azzam’s murder and Usama bin Ladin’s house arrest in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Arab figures and groups were leaving Peshawar.
Judging by JM’s account, its caliphal project was rooted in a number of debates between “scholars and students of Islam” in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. While the Soviets had been defeated, they stated, “the shear ignorance of many so-called leaders of the Jihad had left many Muhajireen and Mujahideen bewildered.” These discussions concluded that the original mistake of the mujahidin was that they had entered the Afghan arena split into multiple groups, leading them to fight each other after the Soviet withdrawal. While the umma was “meant to be one body with one head and one goal”, they added, it found itself leaderless and weakened by internal divisions. The straightforward solution was for Muslims to “unify and come together under one common leadership”, that of the imam or khalifa (caliph). From their perspective, “this will […] automatically restore the strength to the Ummah.”
Looking for the Caliph
Although Abu `Isa was the founding amir of JM, it appears that other figures were the original authors of its program. Indeed, it was Abu `Uthman al-Filistini, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian origin, who came to Abu `Isa in Peshawar and who advocated restoring a unifying, shari`a-based structure as the only way for the umma’s salvation. Another prominent actor in the process was Abu Ayyub al-Barqawi, a Sudanese religious seeker, who also pushed for the caliphate idea. The issue for them was to find the right man for the job, as a caliph has to meet certain requirements, and they thus started their quest. A suitable candidate had been found in Saudi Arabia, but he was later arrested.
During their search, Abu `Isa went to Britain, where he called for absolute monotheism and attempted to gather new followers and financial support. In Peshawar, his acolytes found out that Abu `Isa apparently descended from the Prophet Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe, a central feature for a caliph. Thus, on April 3, 1993, the Peshawar-based associates of Abu `Isa swore loyalty to him as the caliph, with Abu `Uthman acting as the group’s deputy.
In “The return of the system of khilafa”, Abu Ayyub, now JM’s qadi (judge), officially recognized the appointment of Abu `Isa, announcing that “after great deal of (…) consultation some Muslimeen (including people of Knowledge from different parts of the world) pledged the great bay’ah (…) to ‘Abu Isa Muhammad Ali bin Ahmad Al-Hashimy Al-Quraishy”. Besides stressing the necessity of allegiance to the khalifa, he also outlined the latter’s duties, including “[demolishing] all man-made laws” contradicting the shari`a and “[opposing] all kufr [infidel] governments”. In the meantime, he was to gather all Muslims around his leadership and impose Islam’s primacy through jihad.
A Decried Ideology
The banner of JM, the group maintains, attracted recruits “from many different nationalities”, adding that these newcomers operated in “approximately forty countries”. This appeal was partly corroborated by Abu al-Walid who was surprized to see “a large number of Arabs”, including experienced figures, rallying to Abu `Isa’s cause. Nonetheless, based on Abu Qudama Salih al-Hami’s account, while the group did attract volunteers from various countries, the dominant constituency of Abu `Isa’s supporters was made of North-African jihadis.
The caliph’s claims and agenda evoked the ire of the jihadi community. Arab-Afghans repeatedly rebuked the caliph’s group applying unbridled takfir (excommunication) to ever-larger groups of people. For instance, Yusuf al-`Uyayri, the slain head of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula, posited that JM pronounced takfir upon Muslim scholars and populations. Furthermore, he objected to calling its members mujahidin, as they rejected fighting alongside Afghan parties, and even hinted at the involvement of “malicious services” behind this kind of groups.
The hostility faced by JM also lay in the group’s self-proclaimed identity, namely as the only legal Islamic entity, hence vilifying any outsider. This exclusionary approach, Abu al-Walid asserts, translated into JM holding that “any person who does not pledge allegiance to the caliph (…) shall be punished by death”, given that it considered its oath incumbent upon every Muslim. The group demanded fealty from the Arab factions in Khurasan (Afghanistan-Pakistan), including al-Qa`ida. Indeed, upon Bin Ladin’s return to Afghanistan in May 1996, Abu `Isa sent delegates to the Saudi to command him to swear bay`a or face retaliation. In spite of the envoys’ efforts to discuss the matter, the al-Qa`ida leader shunned them.
Besides its ideological stringency, JM was also blamed for its sweeping violence against other fellow Muslims, including jihadis. According to Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, the former top theologian of al-Qa`ida, because JM’s members viewed themselves as a part of a genuine caliphate, they “fought people [and] many bad deeds were committed”. These crimes have been detailed by Abu al-Walid, who recounts how Abu `Isa’s disciples “carried out acts of kidnapping, killing, and fistfights with their opponents”. Their threats to the Arabs who refused to join the group and to their families eventually resulted in anger, leading many group members to flee Peshawar for the tribal areas, only to be kicked out again by the tribesmen who had refused to obey Abu `Isa’s authority.
Together with his followers, the isolated caliph settled in the Afghan province of Kunar, where the group suffered significant losses, as many were killed, imprisoned or deserted. Moreover, their reputation further deteriorated as Abu `Isa issued “sad and funny” fatwas, as Abu al-Walid puts it, notably sanctioning the use of drugs–a nexus had been forged between JM and local drug smugglers. (The fatwa led one jihadist author to dismiss Abu `Isa as the “caliph of the Muslims among drug traffickers and takfir”.) Abu `Isa also prohibited the use of paper currency and ordered his men to burn their passports.
In 1996, the group was a shell of itself, with a tenuous remaining cadre. Their position in Afghanistan was further threatened as the Taliban leader Mullah `Umar also claimed to be amir al-mu`minin (commander of the believers). The asymmetry in this legitimacy contest was obvious: while Mullah `Umar had won the support of many local clerics and his movement had consolidated its territorial holdings inside Afghanistan, Abu `Isa’s endeavor to legitimize his stature was floundering, not least because of the transgressions his entourage was accused of, including murder, armed robbery and torture. Once the Taliban took over Kunar, the group decided to flee to London.
Just as they had failed in Khurasan, Abu `Isa and his disciples were also unable to dominate the Londonistan scene where they ardently advocated their cause. Here too their thinking was widely seen as abhorrent by the broader Salafi-jihadi diaspora.
One of the most outspoken critics of JM was Abu Qatada al-Filistini, who had opposed the group’s project from the beginning. In London, the two parties often debated on the issue of the caliphate, with JM trying to garner Abu Qatada’s support, but to no avail. Indeed, the Jordanian jihadi ideologue viewed the “sprouting chickens” of JM as “a group that has come forward in ignorance”. He went as far as saying to Abu `Isa that his manhaj (methodology) was “a combination of the deviance of the Rafidhah [a derogatory term for Twelver Shi`a] and the Khawarij [an early radical Islamic sect]”. This mutual hatred was best captured during a filmed debate in Finsbury Park in 1997. While Abu `Isa and Abu Ayyub admonished Abu Qatada for his fatwa allowing the killing of the families of Algerian security personnel, the latter sought to portray Abu Ayyub and his likes as the real responsibles for GIA’s crimes by having rendered the Algerian society apostate.
Other noteworthy Londonistani figures rebuffed JM’s thinking. One of these was the Jamaican `Abdallah al-Faysal, who took issue with the group’s “crazy ideas”. Among these was JM’s condemnation of performing the Hajj, under the pretext that the Saudi ruling family was apostate. “The reason people pass these dodgy fatwas”, he asserted, “is because they are jahil [ignorant]”. Similarly, the Syrian preacher `Umar Bakri Muhammad explained that Abu `Isa’s understanding of the caliphate was “very weak” and that, notwithstanding his pretensions, he would not be “able to fulfill the role of [amir al-mu`minin]”.
Abu `Isa’s Legacy
In early 2006, Abu `Isa was arrested and detained in Belmarsh prison, before being released on health ground and eventually passing away on March 4, 2014. Despite their leader’s death, his supporters remain eager to perpetuate his legacy, notably on their facebook page and website. Their determination was on display when they declared that their group still stood as “the only legitimate shariah structure”, while conceding that “the imaamah [leadership] of the previous Imaam appointed in 1993, has become invalid”. Absent a suitable successor, JM has still appointed a new leader to run its affairs.
While Abu `Isa’s rethoric was widely disparaged, this does not mean JM had no influence on the jihadi community. Although dubbed “a tragic project” by Abu al-Walid al-Misri, the latter still holds it as one the two most important movements involving Arab-Afghans post-92. Here lies the ambivalence of JM’s legacy: while its members are remembered as marginal takfiris, their experience still resonates in today’s jihadi old guard as a bitter lesson to the younger generations. The matter is even more relevant today as jihadist elders watch the same thorny issues intertwine with the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The criticisms leveled at JM bear indeed striking similarities to those leveled at the Islamic State. Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, for instance, considers that just as JM before it, the Islamic State has been guilty of rushing into declaring a caliphate. Also reminiscent of what was said about JM’s misconduct, al-Mauritani blames Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces for “[engaging] in wars and conflicts, in which blood was shed and the honor of women was violated.” Commenting on the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Abu al-Walid al-Ansari bemoaned its unilateralism that violated the principle of shura (consultation), just as JM had been scolded for lacking the required support to be acknowledged. He reminds readers how the Khurasan-based milieu had previously faced the issue of extremism in its ranks, likely thinking of the likes of JM. As for Abu Qatada, his vitriolic book “The cloak of the khalifa” goes a step further as it explicitly links what he sees as the “deviance” of the Islamic State to the influence of JM’s creed, adding that the same JM figure who used to call him infidel in London had now joined the Islamic State’s ranks, likely referring to Abu `Umar al-Kuwaiti.
The point is not to equate the Islamic State with JM, as many differences exist between the two. For example, as Abu Qatada acknowledges it himself; although Abu `Umar al-Kuwaiti rallied Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s banner, he was later arrested by the Islamic State for his inflexible interpretation of takfir. This suggests that, even for the self-styled caliphate, JM’s views were too extreme. Also, there is an obvious disparity between the Islamic State’s military and governance capacity and that of JM, which has ever been able to meet its grand ambitions.
That said, there is a clear pattern in how al-Qa`ida and like-minded groups have expressed their concerns with regard to JM and the Islamic State’s policies on issues such as takfir, the use of violence and consultation with others. Both groups have been severely reprimanded for shedding innocent blood, charging their coreligionists with unbelief and acting unilaterially. As a result, both have been seen as a liability and frequently labeled as a contemporary version of the khawarij by their warring brethren.
Whether the Islamic State’s virulence will be its undoing and lead it to meet the same fate as JM is of course the million dollar question.
I had a friend in the 90s in London who used to attend the talks by Abu ‘Isa and pledged allegiance to him. My friend’s name was Hasan al-Ghanmi – a moroccan. He went to Afghanistan in the 90s and died in the infighting there between Arab Jihadis. Although we have never been able to establish exactly what happened to him. I met his parents many years later in Morocco and they asked me what has happened to their son. I had nothing to tell them.