The jihadi underworld has never been so polarised before. From top jihadist leaders to Islamist scholars and even ardent acolytes, debates on theological and strategic issues have reined in the entire militant spectrum, marked by realignments, the switching of loyalties and bloodshed.
At this juncture, the context of the emergence and dominance of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham), the present infighting and the battle for the position of the so-called ‘Ameer-ul-Momineen’ (leader of the faithful) is more important than ever.
The birth of the ‘Islamic State’ — beyond abbreviations
Militant groups continue to debate whether ISIS leader’s move to declare himself ‘caliph’ also undermines Mullah Umar’s authority
In 1999, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed Jamat at-Tawheedwal Jihad in Jordan with the objective of overthrowing the government. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi along with his group shifted to Iraq to fight the Americans. His group also ruthlessly targeted Shias who he accused of being collaborators. In 2004, his group pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. As a result, Al Qaeda’s local franchise in Iraq was rebranded ‘Al Qaeda fee bilaad al Rafidian’ (Al Qaeda in the land of two rivers).
Also read: ISIS declares ‘caliphate’
In 2006, a number of militant groups operating in Iraq, as well as some Sunni tribes, joined forces to create the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) – an emirate similar to what the Taliban in Afghanistan had formed in 1996.
Abu Umar al-Baghdadi was appointed its head. Like Afghanistan’s Mullah Umar, he decided to take up the title of ‘Ameer-ul-Momineen’. Later, Abu Umar was replaced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who dispatched a small team of militants to Syria.
The team was led by a man known as Abu Muhammad al-Jolani. Baghdadi continued to provide Jolani and his team material and technical support. Their mission was to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Jolani was instructed not to show its connection to the Islamic State of Iraq and operate as a local group, in a bid to minimise chances of international sanctions. Jolani’s group operated, and continues to operate today, as Jabhat-un-Nusra (JN).
In 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that JN was in fact a part of his militant group, the ISI, and that it was now merging to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). Jolani responded by saying that he was not consulted and was pledging loyalty to Al Qaeda chief Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri. In 2014, Baghdadi declared an ‘Islami khilafah’ and ISIS was rebranded Islamic State (IS).
While some write ‘ISIL’ — Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, with Levant being the English equivalent for greater Sham — the official title was originally ISIS. In Arabic, ISIS translates to ‘Dawlat al Islami fil Iraq wa Shaam’, commonly referred to as ‘Daish’. However, the group has never officially referred to itself as Daish. From ISI to ISIS and now IS, the switch in terminology is much more about the definition of transitional phases of a so-called ‘state’ than mere abbreviations.
ISIS rejected Jolani’s response and said that he had no option but to oblige since he had been under the command of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al Qaeda chief Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri intervened, instructing the then ISIS to restrain itself to Iraq and allow Jabhat-un-Nusra and other groups to operate in Syria. The IS rejected this order and said that as a group, Al Qaeda was subordinate to a ‘state’, and not the other way around. The debate drew in a number of Islamist scholars who criticised Baghdadi for announcing an ‘Islamic state’ without taking into confidence Islamic scholars as well as jihadi groups around the world.
IS responded by asserting that it held more territory and power than any jihadi group, had implemented Shariah in areas under its command and fulfilled the criteria for the appointment of a caliph.
The killing spree of what now stands as the ‘Islamic State’ started with Shia killings in Iraq around 2005. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi indiscriminately targeted Shias. While advocating takfeeri belief, he also authored anti-Shia literature.
Al Qaeda’s central leadership at the time communicated with Zarqawi asking him to shun indiscriminate Shia killings and his strategic objective of dragging Iran into the conflict since that undermined Al Qaeda’s unofficial, undeclared strategic understanding with Iran.
Zarqawi refused to oblige and his policies soured relations between Al Qaeda central and Iran. After evolving into ‘the Islamic State of Iraq’, it continued with the Shia killings as well as killing Sunnis it accused of being ‘Sahwat’ (tribal councils in alliance with the government). After its expansion into ISIS, the group clashed with various jihadi groups operating in Syria, including the now Al Qaeda-allied Jabhat al-Nusra.
Various anti-Assad jihadi factions accused ISIS of killing over 800 jihadis and turning the tide in Syria in Bashar al-Assad’s favour. The militant movement also opened fronts against secular Kurdish nationalists who it accused of opposing the establishment of an ‘Islamic State’.
Where local jihadi groups stand
Major jihadi groups in Pakistan and around the globe continue to support Mullah Umar, with many of them recently renewing their pledge of allegiance to the veteran Afghan Taliban commander. Some of these groups include TTP (Fazlullah), TTP (Sajna), Jamat-ul-Ahrar, Al Qaeda Central (AQC), Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Haqqani Network, Gul Bahadur group, Tehreek Ghalba-e-Islam, Ansar al-Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
A significant number of foot-soldiers from different groups have moved to Syria where they have joined forces with either the ‘Islamic State’ or the Al Qaeda-allied Jabhat-un-Nusra.
Why support Mullah Umar?
Many of the jihadis have been fighting alongside Mullah Umar for over three decades and find a strong emotional attachment to him; to them, Mullah Umar represents unity in jihad. Al Qaeda in particular feels that Mullah Umar preferred to lose his government rather than handing over Osama bin Laden and other Arab veterans to the US after 9/11. For some groups, the ‘Deobandi’ factor also plays a role in their support for Mullah Umar.
Some supporters of Mullah Umar had questioned the validity of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring himself ‘Ameer-ul-Momineen’ when another person already holds the title. They referred to a saying of the Prophet (PBUH) about killing the second person who declares himself an ‘Imam’ (leader) of the Muslims in the presence of another Imam.
However, Mufti Tahir Jami, a teacher at Madressah Ali Murtaza in Karachi, told this writer that an ameer can be at different levels. “From managing a household, to small units to larger administrative areas, there can be many ameers,” he says.
“What is not permissible is to have more than one Khalifah at the same time. When that happens, you have to get rid of the person who was the second to declare himself. This problem does not arise at the moment. Baghdadi has declared himself a Khalifah while Mullah Umar has kept himself restricted to an emirate.”
Why support al-Baghdadi?
Abdul Rehman, a former Al Qaeda operative in his 40s who later joined ISIS and shifted to Syria along with his family, says: “Mullah Umar had never declared himself Khalifah. Titles by themselves do not mean much. If the objection is simply to the title of Amir-ul-Momineen then why did the same people not object when there was Ameer-ul-Momineen Mullah Umar of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and Ameer-ul-Momineen Abu Umar al-Baghdadi of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’?”
Supporters of IS say that it is now obligatory upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (also known as Khalifah Ibrahim). They accuse Al Qaeda of “deviating” from its methodology, “toning down” and adopting a more “pragmatic” line. Hardcore militant Islamists reject pragmatism as a secular philosophy.
“Mullah Umar now seemed primarily concerned with restoring his rule in Afghanistan. He has issued statements that talk about non-interference in the affairs of neighbouring states. So are the Afghan Taliban embracing the concept of nation-states? We did not make so many sacrifices for some nationalistic goals. We have the concept of one Ummah, one-nation,” Abdul Rehman said.
In an exchange with a senior member of Al Qaeda’s media team, it emerged that the official policy is not to publicly comment on this tussle. However, he agreed to respond on condition of anonymity.
“Every Muslim who understands the obligation of a caliphate is eager for its revival. Unfortunately ISIS has slaughtered many of the mujahideen who were themselves working for a caliphate. They are extremists in their stance on Takfeer and brand even the mujahideen as apostates. The expansion of this extremist movement into Syria, the formation of ISIS, and the infighting that broke out … actually slowed down the advances mujahideen were making against Bashar. What was the strategic sense in dividing the mujahideen?” he claimed.
But the Al Qaeda commander pointed out that the US air strikes on IS strongholds, Al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat-un-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham had forced strategic alliances, at least in some areas.
“The leadership from different sides is trying to work out solutions and I believe this infighting, differences and so forth are actually part of how it is supposed to happen. But from this will emerge the sincere people who will fight the malhamah (great war),” he claimed.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2014