ISIS faces criticism from Jihad advocates in the Gulf and Jordan

A number of prominent Salafist and jihadist figures have publicly criticized the actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, yet it remains to be seen what effect this will have on their support base.

al-monitor Omar Mahmoud Othman — nicknamed Abu Qatada — is seen arriving back at his home after being released on bail in London, Nov. 13, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Andrew Winning.

Topics covered

syria, salafist, opposition, jihadists, al-qaeda, abu bakr al-baghdadi

Feb 11, 2014

The events in Syria not only caused a "huge explosion" of the sectarian situation in a region where the shock of blasts were distributed here and there, but it also brought about "intellectual paradoxes" that are a "precedent in the field of Islamic jihad." Perhaps the most prominent paradox was the shift from the idea of "stabbing and demolishing you enemy" to the idea of "being stabbed in the back by partners in a unified Islamic project." This represents a crossroad that these groups have come upon, especially al-Qaeda, the most prominent and widespread jihadist group. This portends a "violent shakeup" that threatens these groups' popular bases and could effect the size of their popular support, through a loss of confidence in them.

Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda has been confronting a "fierce media attack." This was aimed at "discrediting those affiliated with the group," and was an attempt to emphasize that their approach is "contrary to Islamic law." This attack was welcomed among the media outlets' audience, as observers who are not affiliated with these groups nor are close to them intellectually. Although this can be considered a "success," it was a success [only] among those who fear this ideology. These media attacks were not able to achieve any notable breakthrough in the "solid fortifications" of religious groups that sympathize with al-Qaeda. The latter sympathize with the organization either because it engages in "on-the-ground battles" with the United States, or because of its rhetoric in support of achieving victory for the Palestinian cause by force, not through agreements or treaties. 

Things remained the same until the terrorist operations that swept Saudi Arabia in the first five years of the new millennium. The media machine continued its work in an intensive and continuous manner. Alongside this media campaign, a new religious discourse criticizing the rhetoric adopted by al-Qaeda emerged, via a group of preachers and sheikhs. However, these voices did not destabilize these groups' popular bases, given that they were far removed from the "jihadist theory" that separates between "theorists involved in preaching and scholarly work" on the one hand, and "sheikhs of the front line" on the other. 

In the early days of the events in Syria, which broke out in March 2011, media outlets hid behind headlines such as "Freedom, fighting tyranny and defending the oppressed." This was done in an attempt to obscure the idea that there were armed factions that embrace a radical ideology toward Syrian societal components that differ from them. The news reports that were issued in this regard were "reserved." However, when the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is the primary branch of al-Qaeda, entered the Syrian arena, the wave of old rhetoric warning about al-Qaeda returned. Work was carried out to highlight [al-Qaeda's] mistakes, whether against Syrian citizens or in dealings among various factions. 

However, the fighting that recently occurred between the representative of the al-Qaeda "mother organization" in Iraq — i.e., ISIS — and Jabhat al-Nusra, which ISIS sent to Syria, has led to the emergence of a new rhetoric. This rhetoric is critical of the supporters and theorists of the "arenas of jihad," and has reached the point of calling on people not to join "the banner of ISIS" and speaking openly about [ISIS'] mistakes. This is a precedence that resembles the "disobedience" shown by ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi against his leader [al-Qaeda head] Ayman al-Zawahri, when Baghdadi [refused] the latter's order to leave Syria and restrict his work to Iraq only. 

The strongest "crushing" strike was what was announced by Isam al-Barqawi — also known as Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi — a theorist for the Salafist jihadist movement, in a letter attributed to him from his prison cell in Jordan. In this letter, Barqawi said that he had heard "news of the infighting in Syria" and that he had made "great efforts to end the tensions and factionalism." He said that what is happening — particularly from ISIS — represents "directing the 'compass of killing' away from the enemies of God and criminals … to killing one another." He noted that "the fatwas concerning the permissibility of fighting between Muslims, through acts of bombing and targeting the headquarters of the mujahedeen, are stupid and cannot be issued by [a true] religious scholar." At the same time, he denounced "fatwas that permit the killing of anyone who does not swear alliance [to ISIS]."

These Jordanian fatwas against ISIS continued. Another Salafist jihadist figure, Omar Mahmoud Othman — nicknamed Abu Qatada — spoke about this issue during the third session of his trial in Jordan. "It is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's religious duty to withdraw his men and rally around work under the name of 'Jabhat al-Nusra.'" Othman called on jihadist groups, in particular ISIS, to "release all of their prisoners. Do not kill any person — whether Muslim or non-Muslim — unless they confront you with weapons."  

On the Saudi level, Sheikh Sulaiman al-Alwan, a Saudi preacher who is well-respected by the militant factions in Syria, said, "ISIS does not have the right to attack and target the headquarters of the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade, because they became the property of [Ahrar al-Sham]. Whoever comes to a place takes possession of it and has priority over it." He stressed his opposition to ISIS, given that they "award allegiance to themselves. They don't have general [support]. Allegiance must be granted by [religious scholars], and this is not the case with Abu Bakr [al-Baghdadi]."

Alwan pointed out, "[Baghdadi's] leader Ayman al-Zawahri is not satisfied with his work, so how can he demand allegiance from others? He is not the caliph of the Muslims and thus cannot carry out such acts. He is merely the emir of a group, just like emirs of other groups." He noted [Baghdadi's] "demand the others swear allegiance to him. It they don't, he kills them." Alwan considered this "the work of tyrants. It is not the work of good and righteous people."

Meanwhile, another Saudi preacher, Abdul Aziz al-Tarifi, issued a fatwa proclaiming the "inadmissibility of rallying around the banner of 'the Islamic State' [ISIS], as long as ISIS does not accept the rule of God that is independent from them." He called on members of the group to "defect and join other groups."

On the ground, the idea of "separation" came from one of the most prominent supporters of the opposition fighters in Syria, Kuwaiti preacher Hujjaj al-Ajami. In a post on his personal Twitter account, he wrote, "I am not with ISIS, and all of the meetings [I had] with them were merely for giving advice and evaluation. I did not support them or any group that fights the Syrian people." This direct accusation of "fighting the Syrian people" was a cause of concern for all of those who sympathize with or support the ISIS approach. 

Even Abdulrahman al-Ashmawi, a poet who has been known for "inciting jihadist wars," joined in on warning about the dangers of ISIS. In a recently published poem titled, "Oh how many ISIS [members] are in my nation," he wrote: "In our beloved Syria there is a group of people … they savor deceiving us and [creating] division. They stole the keys to reconciliation and destroyed them … they fired machine guns at reconciliation. Where did these people who spread sedition come from, and how did they come? … They are cloaked in deceit and penetrated [us]. They came in various features, and why? … They entered our Syria and killed [our] companions."

The following questions remain: Will the fatwas and [critical] stances of Salafist jihadist scholars and theorists cause ISIS followers to stop supporting them in their decisive battle in Syria? Or will the jihadist history of al-Qaeda since the 1980s prevent this from happening? And is this sharp criticism directed at ISIS, and the public disobedience Baghdadi has shown toward the orders of Zawahri, an indication of the actual erosion of the "jihadist base," or is it merely a summer cloud that will pass?

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