— The Erimtan Angle —

‘A year ago this month, fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State declared they had established a caliphate in the territories they controlled in Iraq and Syria. Since then the Islamic State has continued to grow, building affiliates from Afghanistan to West Africa, while recruiting new members from across the globe. In response, President Obama has sent thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq. The deployment of another 450 troops was announced on Wednesday. Meanwhile the rise of the Islamic State has reshaped the jihadist movement in the region, essentially bringing al-Qaida to the brink of collapse. According to a new investigation by the Guardian, the Islamic State has successfully launched “a coup” against al-Qaida to destroy it from within. The Islamic State began as al-Qaida’s branch in the heart of the Middle East but was excommunicated in 2014 after disobeying commands from al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. While the Islamic State has since flourished, the Guardian reports al-Zawahiri is now largely cut off from his commanders and keeping the group afloat through little more than appeals to loyalty. We are joined by Guardian reporter Shiv Malik (11 June 2015)’.

The Guardian piece posits that on “5 February, Jordanian officials confirmed that the intellectual godfather of al-Qaida, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, had been released from prison. Though he is little known in the west, Maqdisi’s importance in the canon of radical Islamic thought is unrivalled by anyone alive. The 56-year-old Palestinian rose to prominence in the 1980s, when he became the first significant radical Islamic scholar to declare the Saudi royal family were apostates, and therefore legitimate targets of jihad. At the time, Maqdisi’s writings were so radical that even Osama bin Laden thought they were too extreme. Today, Maqdisi counts the leader of al‑Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as a personal friend, and he is held in the highest esteem by the rest of al-Qaida’s regional heads, from North Africa to Yemen. His numerous books and pamphlets are required reading for Islamic militants around the world, who eagerly follow the latest proclamations on Maqdisi’s website, the Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad. But he may be best known for personally mentoring Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded the organisation that would later become Isis, while the two men were jailed together on terrorism charges in Jordan in the mid-1990s. Zarqawi was released in 1999 and, after swearing allegiance to al-Qaida, went on to become one of the most notorious figures in postwar Iraq, unleashing a brutal campaign of sectarian terror, which led Maqdisi to publicly upbraid his most famous student in a series of devastating public critiques”.[1]

In 2012, the Assist. prof. Islamic studies Dr Joas Wagemakers wrote an authoritative book on the figure of Maqdisi: “Since 9/ll, the Jordanian Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b. West Bank, 1959) has emerged as one of the most important radical Muslim thinkers alive today. While al-Maqdisi may not be a household name in the West, his influence amongst like-minded Muslims stretches across the world from Jordan – where he lives today – to Southeast Asia. His writings and teachings on Salafi Islam have inspired terrorists from Europe to the Middle East, including Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s successor as the head of al-Qa’ida Central. This groundbreaking book, which is the first comprehensive assessment of al-Maqdisi, his life, ideology, and influence, is based on his extensive writings and those of other jihadis, as well as on interviews that the author conducted with former jihadis, including al-Maqdisi himself. It is a serious and intense work of scholarship that uses this considerable archive to explain and interpret al-Maqdisi’s particular brand of Salafism. More broadly, the book offers an alternative, insider perspective on the rise of radical Islam, with a particular focus on Salafi opposition movements in Saudi Arabia and Jordan”.[2]

In 2005, Nibras Kazimi, today a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute, wrote that Maqdisi “traveled widely between Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. During a six month stay in 1989 in Afghanistan, Maqdisi further focused his ideas by extrapolating the concept of al-wala’ wel bara’ [‘loyalty and renunciation’] to prove that the Saudi royal family and government should be branded as unbelievers. The book he produced, Al-kawashif al-jaliyyeh fi kufr al-aawleh al-Saudiyyeh (‘The Illuminating Evidence of the Kufr of the Saudi State’), was considered too radical by Osama bin Laden at the time, and was not disseminated by al-Qaeda even during the late 1990s. In this book, Maqdisi claims that he is ‘a true Sunni Arab from Najd’, probably drawing on his ‘Uteiba tribal origin. He clearly revels in this connection by starting the book with an anecdote related by an elderly Saudi about one of the chief Ikhwan leaders in 1920s, Sultan bin Nejad, the head of the ‘Uteiba tribe, who at the time was being attacked by ‘Ibn Saud. He relates a quote from the tribal chief that ‘if [the Ikhwan] are eradicated, then you will be mingling with crowds of Christians in the markets of Riyadh’. Maqdisi gives tribute to the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammed bin Abdel-Wahhab, and his descendants in the early two Saudi states, but then argues that the destruction of the Ikhwan was the marker point at which the House of Saud turned into unbelievers”.[3]

Back to the recent Guardian piece: “On a sunny spring afternoon, three weeks after his release from prison, Maqdisi sat on a sofa at his friend Abu Qatada’s house, fuming about Isis: the group had lied to him and betrayed him, he said, and its members were not worthy of calling themselves mujahideen. ‘They are like a mafia group’, Abu Qatada added, while Maqdisi nodded his assent. Abu Qatada – who successive British home secretaries tried to deport to Jordan on terror-related charges – has joined Maqdisi as one of the most prominent radical clerics to publicly attack Isis, and his statements of condemnation have been even more scathing. Initially, their strategy seemed to be to bring Isis back under the authority of al-Qaida, using something like a good cop, bad cop approach: Maqdisi played the role of the disappointed father, admonishing and giving guidance in equal measure, while Abu Qatada has poured increasing amounts of scorn on them. The list of Isis’s crimes that have offended Maqdisi and Abu Qatada is long. They include creating division within the wider jihadi movement, publicly snubbing Zawahiri and establishing a caliphate to which Isis demands every other jihadi swear fealty or face death. For more than a year both say they have worked behind the scenes, negotiating with Isis – including with Baghdadi himself – to bring the group back into the al-Qaida fold, to no avail. ‘Isis don’t respect anyone. They are ruining the wider jihadi movement and are against the whole ummah [Muslim nation]’, Abu Qatada said . . . As ideologues steeped in almost 1,400 years of Islamic scholarship, Maqdisi and Abu Qatada tend to the long view – for them, the proper perspective on al-Qaida’s present crisis is one of decades rather than months, which may explain their relative optimism about its possibility for renewal. For now, however, their fierce attacks on Isis have done little to halt its advances. Given the group’s ruthlessness and disdain for criticism, it is hard not to imagine, as one walks away from Maqdisi’s house, that if the war continues, it may not be long before he and Abu Qatada find themselves in the crosshairs”.[4]

[1] Shiv Malik, Ali Younes, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili, “How Isis crippled al-Qaida” The Guardian (10 June 2015). http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/10/how-isis-crippled-al-qaida?CMP=share_btn_tw.

[2] “A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi” Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Quietist-Jihadi-Ideology-Influence-al-Maqdisi/dp/110760656X.

[3] Nibras Kazimi, “A virulent ideology in mutation: Zarqawi upstages Maqdisi” Current trends in islamist ideology (2005). http://wf2020.org/content/researchattachments/attachment/1368/kazimi_vol2.pdf.

[4] Shiv Malik, Ali Younes, Spencer Ackerman and Mustafa Khalili, “How Isis crippled al-Qaida”.

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