From inside a small cell in the Muwaqqar prison in the desert south of Jordan’s capital, Amman, a Jordanian preacher of Palestinian origin named Omar Mahmoud Othman, aka Abu Qatada, whom British authorities deported to Jordan, is organizing the jihadist Salafist movement in the country. Abu Qatada has taken the banner from the spiritual reference of the jihadists in Jordan and the world, Issam al-Barqawi, aka Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. The latter has been imprisoned by Jordanian authorities for several years on terrorism charges.
It is not easy for Abu Qatada to control the jihadist current, which has been busy on the Syrian battlefield, especially after the mutiny by many of the jihadists’ sheikhs against him. The latter are affiliated with the late Ahmad Nazzal al-Khalayleh, aka Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who led al-Qaeda in Iraq and was killed by a US raid in 2006.
Despite this rebellion, in recent days Abu Qatada seemed more active in terms of communicating with Salafist groups in Jordan and those fighting in Syria. He even issued regulatory orders that Salafist jihadists referred to as “binding directives,” as they told Al-Hayat.
The clash between Abu Qatada and the followers of the late Zarqawi started when Abu Qatada received a rare recorded message from al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, announcing the annulment of the annexation of Syria (or al-Sham) to the Islamic State of Iraq (to form the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) and declaring that Jabhat al-Nusra will remain in Syria as al-Qaeda’s only arm there.
In several messages obtained and confirmed by Al-Hayat, Zarqawi’s followers in Jordan rebelled against Abu Qatada and pledged allegiance to ISIS.
They also attacked Maqdisi, who was long described as the spiritual guide to the Jordanian jihad organization before Abu Qatada left for Jordan.
The attack came after Maqdisi, according to sources close to him, adopted Zawahri’s message and called on his supporters to join Jabhat al-Nusra.
Al-Hayat obtained an important message sent by Abu Qatada from his prison cell to the Salafist factions fighting in Syria. The message indirectly criticized ISIS.
The message said, “Your jihad in al-Sham [Syria] belongs to the umma [Islamic nation], not to you. Every day that passes with the brothers not resolving their differences will result in more evil. And all the blood that will be shed today or tomorrow is the result of that rift. … I warn my mujahedeen brothers, both leaders and soldiers, against obeying religious edicts issued by some who are remote and who are novice scholars. … You have to form an elite group of proper religious scholars and give them full authority to issue binding decisions for all.”
Abu Qatada, who was considered Osama bin Laden’s right arm in Europe, said, “There is no need to remind my brothers that jihad is the order of the day. … No emir should be considered caliph or the like. And those who don’t realize that are the most corrupt.”
He went on to say that it is a great sin in God’s religion when “the people of Islam fight each other for the sake of emirs or man-made organizations, and [for the sake of those] who have not acquired wisdom except at the human level.”
Through his letter, Abu Qatada seems to be indirectly criticizing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after Baghdadi requested that Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership pledge allegiance to him as emir.
The dispute between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra became worse when early this year Baghdadi joined the Syrian revolution, declared the annexation of Syria to the Islamic State of Iraq, and called on Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir Abu Mohammed al-Golani to join him.
The move destabilized Jabhat al-Nusra. Many of its leaders and members left it to join ISIS and pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.
In an audio message, al-Qaeda’s leader announced the annulment of the annexation of Syria to ISI and declared that Jabhat al-Nusra would stay in Syria as al-Qaeda’s arm in that country.
But Baghdadi emphatically rejected Zawahri’s declaration and, in the view of experts on Islamic movements, effectively split from al-Qaeda.
That view was supported by what was described as a “war of messages” between their leaders and strategists, as well as in comments on bustling jihadist websites and forums.
To make matters worse, Omar Mahdi Zeidan, one of the most prominent Salafist jihadist leaders in Irbid, Jordan’s second-largest city closest to Syria, issued a letter criticizing both Abu Qatada and Maqdisi, and oddly called on Zawahri to pledge allegiance to the ISIS emir, Baghdadi.
In the letter, which Al-Hayat obtained a copy of and confirmed its authenticity, Zeidan said, “I have read a leaked letter written by Sheikh Abu Qatada in which he talks about the dispute in Syria between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. I found that letter removed from reality and indirectly critical of ISIS and its emir Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may God protect him. [The letter] clearly accused [Baghdadi] and his soldiers of being ignorant and [and behaving immaturely]. This is not how one gives advice. The letter’s author feigned tears about the state of the mujahedeen. … Sheikh Abu Qatada is a prisoner. And a prisoner is not allowed to issue edicts because his mandate is limited. His edicts may cause the loss of innocent souls [without him being aware.] ... We all know that Sheikh Golani was a soldier under the leader of the faithful Baghdadi, who sent [Golani] to fight in Syria. The emir is Sheikh Abu Bakr [al-Baghdadi] and the subordinate is Sheikh Golani.”
That letter upset Maqdisi, so he wrote another letter wondering: How can “a leader” be asked to pledge allegiance to “one of his soldiers”? (He is referring to Baghdadi as the soldier and Zawahri as the leader.)
Maqdisi added, “One of them (in reference to Mahdi Zeidan) has had it and [has started] issuing orders to the leaders of jihad. … I heard that he was addressing the leader of the mujahedeen, our brother and beloved jihadist Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri, may God protect him, ordering him and asking him to pledge allegiance to one of his soldiers, thus sticking his nose in what doesn’t concern him, and not knowing what he’s talking about. It is tragicomic.”
The irony is that Zeidan, whom Maqdisi indirectly ridiculed, is one of the most prominent Jordanian jihadists who fought alongside Zarqawi in Iraq, and who also fought in Afghanistan alongside his brother Mahmoud Mahdi, nicknamed Mansour al-Shami, before Mahmoud Mahdi was killed in an American raid in Pakistan in 2009 [or early 2010]. Before that, he worked as jurisprudence adviser to the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Zeidan is considered the longest-serving prisoner in Jordanian prisons on “terrorism” charges. …
Experts on jihadist movements said that Zeidan is considered to be holding Zarqawi’s banner in Syria. He is supported by many of Zarqawi’s supporters, most of whom are young and enthusiastic and see ISIS as expressing their hard-line views.
The experts added that the current dispute is only the latest round in the controversy between Zarqawi’s followers, who call for armed action without controls, and the Abu Qatada-Maqdisi wing, which calls for deep revisions in the armed operations and for establishing rules governing them.
Salafist leaders told Al-Hayat on condition of anonymity for security reasons that most Salafist fighters who are leaving Jordan for Syria are joining ISIS.
Those leaders, both those affiliated with the Zarqawi wing or the Abu Qatada-Maqdisi wing, refuse to talk in their own names about that subject, for fear of being prosecuted by military courts on charges of “recruiting people for the benefit of fighting in a neighboring state,” i.e., Syria.
Muhammad Abu Rumman, a researcher in the affairs of Islamic movements and jihadist currents, said that the dispute within the Jordanian jihadist movement is between two main currents: the first is a more realistic wing, represented by Maqdisi and Abu Qatada. That wing looks positively toward Jabhat al-Nusra and is considering a correction in al-Qaeda’s path in Iraq. The second wing is the hard-line wing, represented by Zarqawi’s followers, or what some call the “new Zarqawists.” One of their most prominent leaders is Omar Mahdi [Zeidan], who explicitly called on them to pledge allegiance to ISIS and to Baghdadi.
Abu Rumman added, “The realistic wing … is represented, alongside Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi, by prominent leaders, including Saad Hunaiti, Munif Samara and Jarrah al-Rahahila. And those leaders have great doubts and fears about the agenda adopted by ISIS, especially since they don’t know Baghdadi as well as Zawahri, and also because [Baghdadi] appropriated battles fought by other Islamic factions as his own, and because he appointed himself as emir over the believers. … Zawahri’s last message reveals Osama bin Laden’s new ideas before his death, ideas represented by Jabhat al-Nusra, such as reconciling with the community and not calling others apostates. Maqdisi also advocated those ideas. He criticized Zarqawi in his last days for not applying them.”
On the other hand, Abu Rumman, who prepared a lengthy study on Islamic groups in Syria, said that the Zarqawi wing “contains many prominent figures, too, but they are figures who are obscure and somewhat extreme, represented, in addition to Omar Mahdi [Zeidan], by the Salafist jihadist Hamdan Ghuneimat, who hails from [Amman] and who is currently fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo.”
Abu Rumman asserted that most Jordanian Salafists who fled to Syria “are today fighting under the ISIS banner and not that of Jabhat al-Nusra, because many of them support the Zarqawi wing. ... But the wing that is stronger intellectually and culturally within the Jordanian [jihadist] current is that of Abu Qatada-Maqdisi, while the wing that is the strongest in terms of fighting on the ground is the Zarqawi wing.”
In parallel, Wael Al-Butairi, another researcher on Islamist groups who is close to Maqdisi, revealed the contents of a rare message sent by Maqdisi from his prison cell. The message criticized that some are calling the Muslim Brotherhood an “evil [that came] from the secularists.”
Butairi told Al-Hayat that Maqdisi strongly condemned the attacks against the Muslim Brotherhood, attacks that, in statements and speeches, [accuse the Brotherhood] of backstabbing, defamation and contempt, at a time when the group is locked in a fight against the regime of infidelity and the Egyptian army.
He added, “Maqdisi, through his letter, wanted to respond to ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, who said in an audio recording a few days ago that the Muslim Brotherhood is no more than a secular party in Islamic clothing and that the [Brotherhood] is in fact more insidious than the secularists.”
Butairi reported that Maqdisi said, “Is it fair and just to call Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt, after their catastrophe, evil secularists and apostates? Are those who make such accusations capable of being just with the people and ruling them in case they acquire the reins of power? Among [the accusers] are sinners and offenders and immoral people and others who are worse than the Brotherhood.”
During recent months, Jordan has arrested many of Zarqawi’s followers before they could reach Syria. Jordanian officials say that the army and the security forces are doing their best to control the porous border with Syria. Jordan’s top fear is the rising influence of radical fighters near Jordanian towns and villages.
Maher Abu Tair, a political commentator with access to decision-making circles, said that the Jordanian government is “increasingly worried about a jihadist emirate on its border with Syria and is closely monitoring the movements of Jordanian jihadists, who number about 5,000 fighters.”