Amid the ongoing conflict between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, jihadi ideologues and media appear more divided than ever before. Notwithstanding U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that some thought could unite jihadi ranks, the jihadi civil war is raging on unabated, and nowhere more so than on the ideological and media front. Among more traditional media, it is now the norm for jihadi web forums to identify—even openly—with one belligerent or the other. Some forums, such as Platform Media and Tahaddi, promote the Islamic State, with Shumukh more or less also on board; Fida’ and ‘Arin, among others, clearly favor al-Qaeda.
Yet the real jihadi battle of wits is not being waged on or between the forums. The ideological battlefield is defined, rather, by a number of upstart media outlets on Twitter supportive of the Islamic State, on the one side, and a few established websites of older jihadi scholars supporting al-Qaeda, on the other. Among the mass of competitors are two most worthy of attention. These are Mu’assasat al-Ghuraba’ lil-‘Ilam (“The Ghuraba’ Media Foundation”), a pro-Islamic State Twitter outlet, and Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (“The Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad”), a pro-al-Qaeda website overseen by the Jordanian jihadi Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
The Newcomer and the old-timer
The competition between the Ghuraba Media Foundation and Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (hereafter Ghuraba’ and Minbar, respectively) is very much one between new media and old. It highlights the generally more youthful profile of Islamic State supporters contra their more senior, pro-al-Qaeda counterparts.
Minbar (www.tawhed.ws) was founded in or around 2002 by al-Maqdisi (b. 1959), arguably the most well-known jihadi scholar alive. It features the largest online library of jihadi books, essays, fatwas, and audio recordings, and is further known for its “Shari‘a Council” of select scholars who respond to queries from visitors on a range of subjects, including jihad. Like other questionable Arabic websites, its domain name is registered in Samoa (.ws). Minbar does not regularly partake in social media.
The newcomer, Ghuraba’, has a completely different modus operandi, relying instead on social media and free upload sites. Founded in late 2013, it is largely a Twitter phenomenon, having started with the handle @alghuraba_ar. While Twitter’s censors routinely delete it, the outfit quickly reappears at each inconvenience, simply adding a number to its handle. (It is currently @alghuraba_ar04.) To create more permanent links to its files, Ghuraba’ relies on websites like justpaste.it, and for storage it uses sites such as gulfup.com and sendspace.com. Every week Ghuraba’ publishes, in slick PDF documents, multiple essays and books, most of which are devoted to defending the Islamic State against its detractors. Its growing archive of writings (for the moment available here) is becoming a rival, however modest, to Minbar’s jihadi library. The authors it regularly features have likewise become something of a rival to Minbar’s Shari‘a council.
Shari‘a councils of war
On August 16, 2014, Minbar unveiled a new lineup for its relaunched Shari‘a council, defunct since September 2013. The two men last writing for it, Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti and Turki al-Bin‘ali, had adopted a pro-Islamic State position and, it appears, left their posts on the council. These two had also written lengthy works in favor of the Islamic State, subsequently removed by Minbar. By late 2013 Minbar was evidently censoring all pro-Islamic State writings, and Ghuraba’ began publishing the works of Shinqiti and Bin‘ali.
The new Shari‘a council has displayed Minbar’s now well-known bias for al-Qaeda and animus toward the Islamic State. Among the five new members is Sami al-‘Uraydi (b. 1973; @sami_oride), a Jordanian currently serving as a shari‘a official with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Another is one ‘Abdallah ibn Ahmad al-Bun al-Husayni, a man of uncertain identity who describes himself as “one of Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s students.” His first efforts for Minbar were devoted to attacking, in a long refutation, three pro-Islamic State scholars: Turki al-Bin‘ali, Abu Khabab al-‘Iraqi, and ‘Umar Mahdi Zaydan, the former two being regular contributors to Ghuraba’. In large measure, this is a shari‘a council of war.
Ghuraba’, for its part, does not have an official shari‘a council but does host a coterie of regular contributors with essentially the same function. Among the more prominent of these writers are two Mauritanians (Abu ‘Ubayda al-Shinqiti and Abu Salama al-Shinqiti), an Iraqi (Abu Khabab al-‘Iraqi), a Moroccan (Zakariya’ Bu Gharara), a Sudanese (Musa‘id ibn Bashir, recently arrested), and several others of unidentifiable origin (Abu Mus‘ab al-Athari, ‘Ubayda al-Athbaji, Abu Bara’a al-Sayf, and “Ahlam al-Nasr,” described as “the Islamic State’s poetess,” among others).
Bin‘ali, a Bahraini now residing in the Islamic State, was also a prolific contributor to Ghuraba’ before his abrupt disengagement from the internet in July. His one-time ally Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, a Mauritanian (not to be confused with the other Mauritanian Shinqitis), is another story. Last summer he emerged after a months-long absence to announce his sudden opposition to the Islamic State after previously supporting it, becoming the subject of a heated exchange between Ghuraba’ and Minbar.
The origin of this dispute was an open letter of support for the Islamic State issued by Ghuraba’ in February of last year (for the outfit’s own English translation, see here). Called “The Statement of Brotherhood in Faith for Support of the Islamic State,” it was signed by twenty jihadi shaykhs including Shinqiti, whose name came first. The letter called on all Sunni fighters in Iraq and Syria to give fealty (bay‘a) to the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—an implicit attack on al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra. The thrust of the statement certainly fit with Shinqiti’s pro-Islamic State views, which Ghuraba’ had previously published (see here, here, and here).
In mid-July, following the caliphate declaration, Shinqiti suddenly reversed his position, coming out with a fatwa denouncing the Islamic State’s caliphal claim and waxing critical of the group. (While he himself has not acknowledged any reversal, al-Maqdisi has made clear that Shinqiti indeed “reviewed his opinion and corrected his stance.”) In line with this development, Minbar issued a statement on its homepage in late July with the news that Shinqiti was disavowing Ghuraba’s “Statement of Brotherhood in Faith.” Controversially, Minbar furthermore claimed that Ghuraba’ never consulted Shinqiti as to including his name on the “Statement.”
The same day, Ghuraba’ responded with a series of tweets affirming that Shinqiti had indeed been consulted and accusing Minbar of lying. The Ghuraba’ administrator cast this dispute as part a greater contest between Minbar and Ghuraba’:
“It seems Maqdisi and his Minbar can no longer bear our undertaking to publish books and essays by scholars and shaykhs supporting the Islamic State…We in Ghuraba’ Media have opened our hearts and our foundation to the estranged (ghuraba’)* scholars and seekers of religious knowledge whom Maqdisi sought to silence and prevent from speaking the truth…Ghuraba’ Media has become a veritable alternative to Maqdisi’s Minbar, which for years has exercised a monopoly on media activity concerned with religious knowledge and shari‘a…”
The next day Minbar shot back, defending its reputation and integrity and explaining that Shinqiti himself had requested the disavowal. There followed a letter from Shinqiti, who restated his disavowal and attributed his five months of silence to “reasons of health and security.” Neither side has backed down in this dispute, continuing to accuse the other of lying.
Over the next month Ghuraba’s unofficial shari‘a council came out with three short pieces (see here, here, and here) blasting Minbar and defending their foundation. One of these authors addressed Minbar thus: “Your battle with the Islamic State is surely a losing battle. So pick up your pens and ready your paper, for this is a battle that will endure, not expire…The Ghuraba’ Media Foundation has been and will remain the redoubtable fortress for defense of the truthful jihad warriors, as we deem them, of the Islamic State.” Indeed, this battle of pens has yet to let up. In late August one Minbar scholar put together a summa of the criticisms used to repudiate the Islamic State’s caliphate declaration; in mid-September a Ghuraba’ scholar responded with a point-by-point rebuttal.
It is worth remarking that Ghuraba’ is not the only media outfit of its kind. There is an array of jihadi media agencies on Twitter engaging in similar activities, including the Battar Media Foundation (@me_bttar), the Wafa’ Foundation for Media Production (@alwaf_aa), and the ‘A’isha Media Center (@MarkazAisha4), to name just a few. (It is all really too much to keep up with.) In August and September more than a dozen of these “foundations” and “centers” came together under the umbrella of “The Media Front In Support of the Islamic State,” an effort apparently interrupted by Twitter censorship. Ghuraba’ is not even the most prominent of these outfits, but it is by far the most significant in terms of rivaling the vaunted Minbar.
The civil war on display here between Ghuraba and Minbar is a microcosm of the greater jihadi civil war raging across the world and particularly in the greater Middle East. If jihadi ideologues and media are any measure of the state of affairs, it is a conflict that is set to endure—the long war beset with a long war of its own.
[*] The word ghuraba’, as in the media outlet’s name, means “estranged ones” or “strangers.” It derives significance from the following statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that is popular among Salafi Muslims: “Islam began as a stranger and will return as a stranger as it began, so blessed be the strangers.”