Monday’s communiqué from al-Qaeda, which distanced the jihadi network from the Syrian-Iraqi faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), seems to have been part of a broader shake-up within global jihadism provoked by the fighting in Syria. Senior militants and clerics are now lining up to isolate and undermine the ISIL in a drastic shift brought about in part by a junior Saudi jihadi preacher by the name of Abdullah al-Mohaisany.
Mohaisany first traveled to Syria in 2013 to support the “jihad” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and he quickly made his name by fundraising and propagandizing for hardline Islamist factions on social media. He worked with all the main Salafi factions in Syria, including the ISIL, the al-Qaeda–aligned Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham, which is part of a larger opposition alliance called the Islamic Front. When tensions rose between the ISIL and other groups during the summer and autumn, Mohaisany sought to mediate but found his efforts rebuffed by the ISIL. In early January, major infighting erupted between the ISIL and other jihadi rebel groups.
On January 23, Mohaisany put forth a peace plan called the Umma Initiative that would settle the conflict through an Islamic sharia tribunal. (For background on the Umma Initiative, read this.)
By January 27, Mohaisany’s initiative had been endorsed by all of the main factions in northern Syria and by numerous hardline Islamist figures outside the country. Again, the only exception was the ISIL, which issued a last-minute statement (Arabic version here) saying no peace process could start until its rivals distanced themselves from democracy and Western-backed opposition factions like the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the exile-led National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as well as from states like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Several of the groups fighting the ISIL are supported by these states, and the ISIL’s preconditions were a nonstarter.
Mohaisany’s Response to the ISIL
Given the broad endorsement for the Umma Initiative, other Islamist factions argued that the ISIL’s rejection of sharia mediation had once and for all proved its extremist nature. They were upset that Mohaisany didn’t immediately respond by condemning the ISIL as the party responsible for wrecking his reconciliation efforts.
After a week of frustrating silence and comments skirting the issue, Mohaisany finally returned in full force on February 2. After explaining that he had been busy fighting in the Hama Province, he uploaded a half-hour-long voice recording (Arabic transcript here) that preceded the al-Qaeda statement by only a few hours.
Up until that point, Mohaisany had played his cards close to the chest and kept a friendly tone toward all factions—but now he issued a damning indictment of the ISIL, accusing it of having spurned all attempts at mediation as well as of killing civilians and causing internal strife among Syria’s rebels.
He subtly conceded that certain groups in the anti-ISIL camp are not ideologically pure from a Salafi-jihadi perspective, saying that “there are some that accept the National Coalition as their political front and their representative, whereas others have announced in both words and in action that they want nothing to do with it.”
But while he could agree with the complaints over their foreign ties, Mohaisany opposed the ISIL’s attempt to avoid facing such factions in a sharia arbitration process, saying the ISIL’s preconditions are “not found in God’s book, nor in the Prophet’s traditions.” He argued that it doesn’t matter if the parties to a dispute are sinners or not because as long as the judges are trusted Islamic scholars, sharia law itself will weed out any bad apples. Mohaisany also pointed out that the Prophet Mohammad had used sharia to mediate cases involving non-Muslims. If Islamic law is able to settle rivalries between Muslims and Jews, how could the ISIL say it won’t accept sharia mediation with FSA-linked factions?
Go Back to Iraq
Mohaisany ended his statement by calling on ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to leave Syria and return to Iraq, where the ISIL had previously been fighting the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki under the name the Islamic State of Iraq. He said that those ISIL members who want to stay and fight in Syria should instead join the Nusra Front or Ahrar al-Sham. In that way, they would be able to fight for Islam without causing disputes among the Syrians.
This was in exactly what al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had demanded from the ISIL in May 2013, only to be publicly snubbed by Baghdadi. Mohaisany made several glowing references to Zawahiri, even quoting an oblique criticism of the ISIL from one of the al-Qaeda leader’s speeches: “We didn’t come to rule the Levant, but so that God’s law would rule the Levant.”
The ISIL’s Isolation
Despite or perhaps because of its failure, Mohaisany’s Umma Initiative has become a catalyst for Salafi-jihadi anger against the ISIL. Numerous jihadi scholars that had previously been on the fence came out to endorse Mohaisany’s initiative after January 23. The ISIL’s rejection of the initiative on January 27 unleashed a barrage of criticism. Mohaisany’s February 2 attack on the ISIL was widely endorsed and circulated on extremist websites.
Many have also followed Mohaisany’s example in backing the demands of Zawahiri, saying the Nusra Front should be the main jihadi faction in Syria and the ISIL should return to Iraq. While few have openly called for attacks on the ISIL in Syria, a large segment of the jihadi community has now thrown its weight behind those Syrian Islamist factions that are confronting the ISIL.
The ISIL retains significant support among jihadis and has cultivated its own sources of funds and recruits in a younger generation of clerics and fighters. But most senior jihadi leaders seem to be abandoning neutrality and placing their chips with al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front.
In addition to Zawahiri and the al-Qaeda leadership and the Syrian Islamist factions, they include veteran jihadi theologians like Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini, both imprisoned in Jordan. There’s also a younger generation of ideologues, like the Jordanians Eyad Qunaibi and Abu Mohammad al-Tahawi (the latter is also in prison). Some well-known clerics involved in fundraising for jihadi groups in Syria have also endorsed Mohaisany’s criticisms, including the Kuwait-based Salafis Hajjaj al-Ajmi and Hamid al-Ali, and of course Mohaisany himself.
“By God,” said Mohaisany in his statement, “I have never before seen the world’s scholars of jihad unite to criticize and disagree with an ‘Islamic’ project in the way that they’re now united in criticizing the project of the State in the Levant.”
The Jihadi Civil War
A civil war has erupted within global jihadism, and on February 2 it seemed to pass the point of no return. After the landslide shift in jihadi opinion that was set off by Mohaisany’s Umma Initiative, al-Qaeda’s public renunciation of the ISIL only served to increase the pressure. Its Nusra Front affiliate is now one step closer to formally joining the purge of the ISIL from Syria.
If he is unable to turn the tables on his opponents militarily, Baghdadi will either have to submit to the growing anti-ISIL consensus and return to Iraq or face down an alliance of jihadi militants, ideologues, recruiters, and fundraisers whose joint efforts could hurt his would-be caliphate far worse than either the CIA or the FSA.