Center for Strategic Communication

As most readers of Jihadica will know, the famous Jordanian radical scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi was arrested in September 2010 on suspicion of aiding terrorists and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in July 2011. Since then, however, we have rarely heard anything from the man often described as the most important radical Islamic scholar alive. As my current research focuses on quietist Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, I regularly read Jordanian newspapers, which not only give us some idea of what is happening with al-Maqdisi, but also report on the Jihadi-Salafi community that he has left behind.

Hunger strike

For those who know something about al-Maqdisi’s earlier stays in prison, it is clear that these periods have often been some of the most productive ones in his entire life. He once even referred to the period 1994-1999 as the “blessed days”, as they allowed him to write many books, articles and fatwas. Since his earlier re-arrest in 2005 (released in 2008), however, very few of his writings have reached a wider audience while he was in prison. This is not to say that he was not engaged in putting his thoughts on paper, but just that he was apparently less successful in getting them out to the rest of the world.

His most recent stay in prison is also characterised by an almost complete black-out to the media and others. Almost, that is, since the Jordanian Islamist Al-Sabil newspaper reported on 9 November that al-Maqdisi sent them a letter from behind bars in which he told them of his threat to go on a hunger strike. Al-Sabil had reported this before and al-Maqdisi also sometimes took the same action during his previous stays in prison. The reason this time, according to al-Maqdisi’s letter, is that he wants to be transferred from the current prison in which he is staying in al-Mafraq (in the north of Jordan) to one closer to al-Rusayfa, where his family live, but the prison authorities are apparently not forthcoming in granting his request.

In his letter to Al-Sabil, al-Maqdisi also writes that life in prison has not been easy for him. On top of his assertion that he is innocent and therefore wrongly imprisoned and is withheld the support of a lawyer, he claims to suffer from back pains and also has a knee that hurts. The latter, al-Maqdisi states, was caused by an intelligence officer (described by him as the son of the current Jordanian Minister of Justice) who beat him there with the butt of his rifle. Meanwhile, the prison authorities refuse to give him the treatment he needs, al-Maqdisi claims, and – to his frustration – also offer him fruit on which the words “Produced in Israel” are written.

Al-Maqdisi’s Jordanian heirs

With al-Maqdisi apparently languishing in prison, it is interesting to see what the Jihadi-Salafi community he left behind is now doing. First of all, there is the question of leadership. While al-Maqdisi was clearly a scholar with a wide and international following, none of the remaining Jihadi-Salafi leaders seem able to fill his shoes in this respect. The movement’s current leaders include men such as Abu ‘Abdallah Luqman al-Riyalat, Nur al-Din Bayram and Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi. Although all three enjoy the respect of their local base in the cities of al-Salt, al-Zarqa’ and Irbid, respectively, none of them have the same scholarly credentials as al-Maqdisi and they are virtually unknown outside Jordan.

If the amount of media exposure is any guide to indicating who al-Maqdisi’s Jordanian temporary heirs are – until he is released from prison again, that is – the movement’s undisputed leaders are Muhammad al-Shalabi (better known as Abu Sayyaf) from Ma’an, in the south of Jordan, and especially the aforementioned Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi from the northern city of Irbid. The latter is obvious, since he was a prominent figure even when al-Maqdisi was still a free man and was on good terms with him. Abu Sayyaf is a different matter, however, since he was considered little more than a firebrand several years ago, but is now often called upon to comment on issues related to radical Islam.

Al-Maqdisi’s jihad

The Jihadi-Salafi movement led by the men mentioned above may have few scholars and even fewer high-profile activists, but al-Maqdisi left them some very clear ideas on why, when and how to wage jihad. As I point out in detail in my recently published book on al-Maqdisi, the most important reason to wage jihad according to the latter is to overthrow “apostate” rulers in the Muslim world, rather than defending Muslim land against non-Muslim invaders, although he certainly considers this legitimate too.

Even a legitimate jihad, however, should not be engaged in hastily and recklessly, but only if there is a real chance of succeeding. There is little use in jihadis simply acting as cannon fodder for their enemies, as al-Maqdisi once explained in the context of his opposition to youngsters going off to Iraq to fight the Americans there. Moreover, even if someone decides to join a jihad, this needs to be waged in a way that is legitimate from the point of view of the shari’a, meaning that the ends (victory over the enemy) do not always justify the means (beheadings, killing innocent civilians, etc.).

In short, it is necessary for all jihadis, al-Maqdisi believes, to think twice before they to run off to some war front; even in legitimate jihads, he wants them to join a proper organisation that fights under the banner of Islam so that their fighting efforts will be organised, effective and legitimate. Now that al-Maqdisi is not available to guide and correct his followers, however, how are they faring?

Fighting on two fronts?

The Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi movement seems to have been engaged in at least one jihad this year, namely the fight to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Asad in Syria. According to al-Tahawi, some 250 Jordanians are fighting the regime in Syria at the moment. Several of these were reported to have been killed, including – incidentally – al-Tahawi’s own son-in-law, and some of them have also been arrested after returning from Syria in increasing efforts by the Jordanian regime to crack down on border-crossing jihadis.

The second front – if there is one – is less clear. Although al-Tahawi proclaimed in late October that his movement “is determined to do a martyrdom operation in Israel”, little has come of such efforts in the past and the fact that such threats are published in the media seems to suggest that they are little more than empty rhetoric. More interesting is the arrest of eleven Jihadi-Salafis suspected of wanting to attack shopping centres and Western diplomatic targets in Amman in October. While much of the Jordanian press praised the security services for nabbing these men before they could do any damage, some took the trouble of asking Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi about his thoughts on the case. The latter rejected the regime’s accusations and stated that he believed they were innocent since his movement condemned killing other Muslims.

What would al-Maqdisi do?

It is unclear whether al-Tahawi’s claims should be taken at face value. Do the actions that we can be sure about (i.e., the Jordanians fighting in Syria) conform to al-Maqdisi’s jihadi preferences? Although it remains difficult to assess, al-Maqdisi’s focus on fighting “apostate rulers” most probably means that he agrees with a jihad against al-Asad, especially since the jihadis actually have a (long) shot at succeeding, particularly as no Western armies have entered the fray yet.

Al-Maqdisi would also look favourably on the Jihadi-Salafi groups set up in Syria itself, such as Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, which at least some Jordanians are said to have joined and which ensure that the jihad being waged is better organised and fought under a legitimate banner. Although he would definitely lament the fact that no true scholar has temporarily succeeded him to provide religious guidance to Jordanian jihadis, al-Maqdisi may well be quite satisfied with what his followers are doing.