Dr. Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, as pictured on his Twitter feed.
The ability of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State to garner new recruits has become such a problem that one of Baghdadi’s most influential critics has been forced to weigh in.
Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a popular al Qaeda-linked cleric from Saudi Arabia, has criticized the leadership of the Islamic State’s jihadist rivals in Syria for failing to provide a unified plan. Muhaysini argues that because of the “disorder” in the jihadists’ ranks, young recruits have been forced into the arms of Baghdadi’s Islamic State.
The Saudi sheikh, who relocated to Syria in 2013, is no fan of Baghdadi or the Islamic State, which he has criticized for following the “wrong” jihadist program. Muhaysini has been closely allied with the leaders of the Islamic State’s jihadist opponents in Syria, including the Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda’s official branch in the country. But this hasn’t stopped Muhaysini from publicly criticizing those same leaders for failing to prevent the “youth” from falling under the Islamic State’s sway.
Muhaysini’s critique, therefore, provides an interesting look at the jihadists’ shortcomings in Syria, from the perspective of an ideologue associated with al Qaeda.
Muhaysini’s criticisms were first published on his Twitter feed, which has more than 330,000 followers, on Oct. 20. The tweets were then collated into a single statement that was distributed online.
The ideologue begins by saying that he is providing a comment “on some of our beloved ones pledging allegiance to the State Organization,” meaning Baghdadi’s group. Muhaysini writes that he is still “determined to distance” himself from discussing the Islamic State. This is not because its jihadist program is the right one. Instead, Muhaysini says, he doesn’t want to address the Islamic State’s deficiencies right now because all of the jihadists in Syria are “in defiance of the Crusaders and their Arab agents,” who are bombing targets in the country.
Regardless, Muhaysini writes that he is compelled to address the defections to the Islamic State because it is his “duty” to clarify the situation.
Muhaysini does not name any specific jihadists who have joined the Islamic State, but it is clear that he is primarily talking about foreign fighters. He says the Islamic State’s recruits “emigrated from their homelands” intending to “establish” Allah’s sharia law and restore “the lost caliphate.”
The Islamic State’s messaging has focused unambiguously on these themes. The entire purpose behind the rebranding of Baghdadi’s organization from the Islamic State of Iraq, to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), to simply the Islamic State, was to capitalize on the claim that the organization has resurrected the caliphate.
Still, according to Muhaysini, some withheld their allegiance to the Islamic State after hearing experienced jihadists “speak against it,” “criticize” it, and “warn against pledging allegiance” to Baghdadi. So, the emigrants waited, especially after seeing the Islamic State’s spilling of Muslim blood.
It is at this point that the Islamic State’s rivals failed, according to Muhaysini. The foreigners “expected” groups such as the Ansar al Din Front (which includes foreign contingents), Ahrar al Sham, and Al Jund al Sham, as well as others, “to launch the project for which they emigrated.” But all the emigrants found was “disarray, dissent,” “selfishness” and poor conditions among the alternatives to the Islamic State.
The jihadists who emigrated to Syria compared these groups to the Islamic State and chose “the order” of the latter.
Muhaysini says that Abu Muhammad al Julani (Al Nusrah Front’s emir), Abu Jabir (the leader of Ahrar al Sham), and the leaders of Ansar al Din and Al Jund al Sham all “need to understand this.”
Specifically addressing these leaders, Muhaysini warns they “must understand that they will be accountable before Allah for these young men who had to choose between a rock and a hard place.” That is, the new recruits had to pick between the Islamic State, with its “order” and “wrong program,” and the other factions’ “disorder” and “correct program.”
Muhaysini adds that the jihadist leaders “will be questioned on Judgment Day” about their “disorder and failure to launch” their project, which is what has caused problems among the youth. The ideologue claims that the youth do not agree with the Islamic State’s decision to deem its fellow jihadists as un-Islamic, but they’ve had no choice.
And, in what appears to be a critique of the Al Nusrah Front, Muhaysini says that he repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, appealed to the group’s leadership to reform its media arm and regional management. This is an implicit acknowledgment that the Islamic State has advantages in both regards.
If his problems with the Islamic State were merely administrative, Muhaysini says, he would have joined the organization long ago. But his disagreements with Baghdadi and his subordinates go well beyond management issues. The Islamic State declares Muslims “to be infidels,” spills their blood, rejects arbitration with other groups in a common sharia court, and unilaterally decided to declare a caliphate “without consultation” among Muslims. For all of these reasons, Muhaysini says, the Islamic State adheres to the wrong jihadist program.
Muhaysini pleads with the “brothers” who joined the Islamic State to attempt to reform it from within. He warns them not to be silent when it comes to the Islamic State’s violence towards Muslims. And he says they should listen to what established jihadist authorities have to say, listing 11 influential scholars as righteous guides. The scholars include well-known critics of the Islamic State, such as Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, Abu Qatada, and Hani al Sibai.
The Saudi says that nothing would make him happier than if the Islamic State reformed its ways, not even the deaths of one million Alawites [Bashar al Assad and his followers] and Crusaders.
In separate tweets and statements in the days that followed his critique of the Islamic State’s rivals, Muhaysini said that he would again visit all of the top jihadist leaders in Syria. Muhaysini says he wants to unify the jihadists’ ranks against their common enemies.
But he has attempted, and failed, to bring about a reconciliation on multiple occasions in the past.