Center for Strategic Communication

The rebel offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in northern Syria, which broke out on January 3, 2014, has dramatically heightened tensions between Jihadi-Salafi thinkers. As noted previously, two tendencies predominate among jihadis insofar as the Syrian war is concerned: one favoring the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and cooperation with all rebel groups, and another favoring ISIS and its exclusionary political designs as the reborn Islamic state, or proto-caliphate.

On the ground at least, the uprising against ISIS has not for the most part opposed the more pragmatic JN backers to the more ideological ISIS devotees. Although driven violently out of Raqqa by the Islamic State in mid-January, JN has largely stood aloof during this confrontation. Rather those arrayed against ISIS—what one jihadi author has termed “the tripartite aggression”—consist of two upstart groups, the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front and the Mujahidin Army, and the Islamic Front (IF), an Islamist umbrella organization founded in November 2013. Nonetheless, the fighting has aggravated intra-jihadi tensions as the ongoing hostilities focus attention on ISIS’s unique claim to statehood and the inviolable sovereignty that this implies.

The Maskana prelude

It was an escalating dispute between ISIS and IF affiliates in December in the town of Maskana, located on the eastern outskirts of Aleppo, which precipitated the present crisis. The Islamic State’s refusal to submit the dispute to arbitration pushed its rivals over the edge. The same recalcitrance in the current conflict has forestalled any progress in reaching a solution.

On January 1, the Islamic Front announced that one of its revered commanders, Abu Rayyan of Ahrar al-Sham, had been brutally tortured and killed by ISIS in Maskana. Abu Rayyan had headed to the town to mediate the month-long conflict there, which had led to tens killed and many prisoners taken by each side. For weeks Ahrar al-Sham had asked ISIS to allow a third-party—“an independent shar’ia court”—to make an independent ruling on the conflict, but a response was never forthcoming. In mid-December a shari’a consultant (shar’i) of Ahrar al-Sham issued a stern warning to ISIS: “I call openly on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: restrain your soldiers and reconsider your policy. We are in one ship and will all drown if it sinks. May he perish who refuses to submit to the judgment of the shari’a!” Following the death of Abu Rayyan, the Islamic Front’s political committee issued a further warning: “We warn the Islamic State organization not to follow in its its regular manner by standing in the way of…an independent court.” In an interview five days later, the local leader of ISIS in Maskana, one Abu Dujana al-Kuwaiti, blamed the Islamic Front for instigating the current anti-ISIS uprising, seen as part of a larger “global conspiracy” aimed at uprooting the Islamic State.

Before the death of Abu Rayyan, the events in Maskana drew the attention of two prominent jihadi thinkers, the pro-JN Iyad Qunaybi (@EYADQUNAIBI), a Jordanian and U.S.-trained pharmacologist who served in prison with Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Abu Humam al-Athari, a well-known Bahraini member of the pro-ISIS camp. Qunaybi condemned what he saw as the Islamic State’s refusal to answer requests for third-party arbitration. Addressing ISIS leaders, he wrote: “You command the people to submit to the ruling of God’s book…Then when you yourselves are called upon to do so, you say, ‘We have our own courts’… If the Islamic State organization only pays heed to itself, is its agenda really the agenda of the Islamic community?” Al-Athari responded with a refutation of Qunaybi’s “bizarre judgments.”[i] These he chalked up to Qunaybi’s irrelevant background in pharmacology. Qunaybi’s first mistake, said al-Athari, was his mischaracterization of the Islamic State as an “organization” (jama’a), as in reality it is a sovereign state (dawla). As such it cannot accept external legal supervision or mediation (except in coordination with an ISIS court), for that would “infringe on the right of the Muslim sovereign and his state.” Since the offensive against ISIS began, the question whether the Islamic State should accept arbitration has remained a central feature of the expanding intra-jihadi debate.


A series of initiatives has since called on the belligerent parties to authorize an independent tribunal to arbitrate the conflict. Predictably, ISIS has proved unwilling to accept any such thing.

The first initiative, presented by JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani in an audio message on January 7, proposed that a “legal commission” be formed by “all concerned parties” with a mandate to impose a solution. ISIS gave no public response to Jawlani, who in the same statement had blamed the Islamic State’s “wrongheaded policy” for “a large role in instigating the confrontation.” The pro-ISIS Abu Humam al-Athari, for his part, quickly came out with an aggressive refutation of Jawlani—“the renegade leader.” The real cause of rebel infighting in Syria, as he saw it, was not ISIS’s policy but rather Jawlani’s original defection from the ISIS ranks, a precedent for further revolt.

On January 19, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi presented a counter-initiative, essentially a plea for an unconditional ceasefire. In an audio statement he explained that his state was only fighting in self-defense, and so anyone who desisted from fighting would not be harmed.

Two days later a second initiatve was proposed by two jihadi thinkers of Egyptian origin, the London-based Hani al-Siba‘i and the Canadian-based Tariq ‘Abd al-Halim. While both have tended to favor JN over ISIS—they do not recognize ISIS as a state—their proposal praised Baghdadi’s ostensible offer of peace. Yet like Jawlani, they too premised their initiative on the formation of an independent shari‘a court empowered to issue a binding judgment. The result: no response.

The Siba‘i-‘Abd al-Halim gambit soon gave way to the so-called “Community Initiative” of prominent Saudi preacher ‘Abd Allah al-Muhaysani. The latter called on all concerned parties “to place the interest of the Islamic community ahead of the interest of the group.” Al-Muhaysani presented a detailed reconciliation plan again involving an independent tribunal of sorts. It required all parties to assent to the terms of the initiative within five days, which all but the Islamic State did (see here and here). At the last moment, as the initiative expired on January 27, ISIS published a statement informing that it would participate if all parties first agreed on what position to take on cooperating with the Syrian National Coalition, its Supreme Military Council, and the neighboring governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. Since ISIS rejects cooperation with all of them (ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani has essentially hereticized them) while the other parties do not (even Jawlani has indicated a willingness to work with the Gulf countries) the statement served to preempt all discussion of mutual arbitration. In closing, ISIS reminded its adversaries that “the initiative of the commander of the believers”—that is, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s peace offering—remained on the table.

A pro-IF jihadi

While most jihadi thinkers have tended to support either ISIS or JN as the epitome of the jihadi movement in Syria, one prominent jihadi ideologue, the Syrian Abu Basir al-Tartusi, has instead favored the Islamic Front and particularly Ahrar al-Sham, accusing the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra of representing foreign interests. In mid-January, Abu Basir took his criticism of ISIS to another level, issuing a fatwa branding the Islamic State a band of “extremist Kharijites,” a reference to the violent exclusionary sect in early Islamic history. Among other things, he accused ISIS of unduly hereticizing other Muslim rebels in Syria, torturing its prisoners, targeting fellow Muslims with suicide tactics, and  exploiting the phrase “the Islamic State.” “Their state,” he wrote, “exists only in their imaginations and feeble minds.” Jihad against ISIS is thus warranted till such time as they desist from their “injustice, oppression, and aggression.” Some IF members, including the leadership of Liwa’ al-Islam and the Suqur al-Sham Brigades, have recently made similar remarks comparing ISIS to the Kharijites.

While Abu Basir’s stature in jihadi discourse has suffered since last year when he denounced Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Athari apparently found that this fatwa merited a detailed response. This he delivered in a booklet intended to explain “the difference between the men of the [Islamic] State and the Kharijites.” Its main argument is that the accusations brought against ISIS today—especially that of excessive hereticization (takfir)—were precisely those leveled against the first Saudi state inspired by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab.

Pro-JN jihadis

The jihadi thinkers favoring JN have not gone so far as to brand the Islamic State a group of Kharijites. Rather their critique consists in a rejection—sometimes subtle, sometimes not—of ISIS’s claim to constitute a state with unimpeachable sovereignty. Iyad Qunaybi is an example of a pro-JN jihadi who has been outspoken in this rejection. Those who used to make it more subtly have started to join him.

Whereas two months ago Abu Qatada al-Filastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, the two best-known jihadi thinkers alive, erred on the side of subtlety in  criticizing ISIS, since the offensive started they have quite noticeably sharpened their tone. During a court hearing in Amman in mid-January, Abu Qatada called on al-Baghdadi to scrap the “Islamic State” name and fight under Jabhat al-Nusra’s banner. He thereafter made his views clearer in an open letter, advising ISIS members in Syria to join JN and pleading with Baghdadi to follow the orders of Ayman al-Zawahiri and retreat to Iraq. According to Abu Qatada, while it is unlawful for Muslims to fight ISIS, the causes of the war against it lie in its stubborn insistence on statehood and in its unwarranted killing of other Islamist groups’ members. In his letter he is pessimistic that the conflict can be peacefully resolved, noting that since it “refuses to accept arbitration” of disputes, the Islamic State will not likely lend “receptive ears” to any call for reconciliation. That seems a pretty accurate prognosis.

In a leaked message from mid-January, al-Maqdisi likewise voiced his frustration with ISIS’s stubbornness. Additionally, he chided fellow jihadi ideologues al-Athari and Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, both of whom have contributed extensively to his popular website, for lending their support to the Islamic State’s radical policies. “I hope,” he is reported to have said, “that my anger reaches them.” Subsequently, in an open letter online, he struck a more conciliatory tone, though still managing to ridicule the idea that any jihadi group had become something “like the caliphate.” Reportedly al-Maqdisi was supportive of al-Muhaysani’s “community initiative.”

Pro-ISIS jihadis

Apart from al-Athari, two other noteworthy exemplars of the pro-ISIS jihadi camp are the Mauritanian al-Shinqiti (named by al-Maqdisi) and the Jordanian ‘Umar Mahdi Zaydan. Recently, neither has exhibited much restraint in criticizing ideologues of the competing camp. In an essay from early January, al-Shinqiti took aim at the argument of some thinkers (including Abu Qatada and al-Maqdisi) that the Islamic State is not a “lawful emirate” but rather a mere “battlefield command.” “O you who have made war on the [Islamic] State with your fatwas,” he said, “you have created this state of division (fitna).” The proper course for all Muslim fighters in Syria, in his view, and the only way to avoid dissension, is that they give allegiance (bay‘a) to ISIS leader Baghdadi. In a mid-January audio address, Zaydan praised al-Athari and al-Shinqiti for defying “their shaykh” al-Maqdisi, “with whom they are associated” and to whose website they once contributed. Instead of heeding the wrongheaded opinion of their teacher, they had obeyed God and His messenger.

A deepening divide

The protests of the pro-JN camp, which includes those thinkers generally considered most influential within the jihadi movement at large, seem unable to shake the resolution of the partisans of the Islamic State. Over the last month the latter have only grown more resolute, even mustering the courage to refute their presumed elders. The Islamic State, which was meant to unify jihadis and expand their base of support, has in Syria created a stark division. As the ideological divide in jihadi discourse becomes more and more pronounced, the likelihood grows that the consequences for jihadi unity will be dire.


[i] According to unverifiable information from @wikibaghdady (on which see here), Abu Humam al-Athari is the pseudonym for Bahraini religious scholar Turki al-Bin’ali and has considerable ties to ISIS.