February 4, 2014 | FDD’s Long War Journal
Pro-al Qaeda Saudi Cleric Calls on ISIS Members to Defect
Not long after al Qaeda's general command yesterday disowned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), a popular Saudi cleric who has relocated to Syria took to his social media sites to call on ISIS members to defect.
Sheikh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini played a leading role in the mediation efforts between ISIS and other rebel groups, which have been increasingly fighting among themselves. But now that those efforts have failed, Muhaysini says on his popular Twitter feed, ISIS members should defect to the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic Front.
The Al Nusrah Front is now al Qaeda's only official branch inside Syria. The al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al Sham is one of the most powerful groups within the Islamic Front, which is a coalition of rebel groups. Abu Khalid al Suri, Zawahiri's main representative in Syria, is a senior leader in Ahrar al Sham.
Muhaysini's call for ISIS defectors has quickly become popular on Twitter, with many online jihadists and their supporters retweeting his message. This is not surprising, as the Saudi has a substantial online presence. His Twitter feed currently has almost 280,000 followers.
Now that al Qaeda's senior leadership has publicly disavowed ISIS, the calls from Muhaysini and other respected jihadists will challenge ISIS to maintain its base of support. ISIS has committed followers, but senior jihadists are now attempting to roll back its influence.
Other influential ideologues have endorsed Zawahiri while rejecting ISIS
Muhaysini cites ideological bigwigs such as Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, both of whom are imprisoned in Jordan, to support his anti-ISIS effort. All three have said that ISIS should have obeyed Ayman al Zawahiri's orders. In May of last year, Zawahiri ordered ISIS to disband its Islamic state and focus its efforts inside Iraq, while leaving the fight for Syria to the Al Nusrah Front and other groups. ISIS openly defied this order.
Abu Qatada is the well-known al Qaeda cleric who was detained on and off again in the UK for years before finally being deported to his native country in July 2013. He is currently on trial in Jordan on terrorism charges.
Abu Qatada is best known for his ties to a constellation of al Qaeda actors inside Europe, including the terrorists responsible for the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings. Since his return to Jordan, Abu Qatada has become an active voice in the jihadists' online world from his prison cell. He has, for example, written to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which is led by one of his former pupils, Seifallah Ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi).
Late last month, Abu Qatada issued a harsh rebuke of ISIS during a break in his trial. The cleric said ISIS was “ignoring instructions” from Ayman al Zawahiri and would “disintegrate eventually,” according to the Associated Press.
Abu Qatada also explained that ISIS fighters had been “misled to fight a war that is not holy,” which is likely a reference to the infighting ISIS has sparked.
Baghdadi is the emir of ISIS and has delusions of grandeur, considering himself to be the rightful ruler over a large Islamic state covering Iraq and the Levant. Al Qaeda's senior leaders never approved of Baghdadi's decision to declare an Islamic state, and instead focused their efforts on the fight against Bashar al Assad's forces.
In a statement obtained by Al Hayat, Abu Qatada blasted Baghdadi's attempted power grab without mentioning him by name. “There is no need to remind my brothers that jihad is the order of the day,” Abu Qatada wrote. “No emir should be considered caliph or the like. And those who don't realize that are the most corrupt.”
Similarly, Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi has sharply criticized ISIS. In a statement released in January, Maqdisi denounced ISIS' fatwas, which “obligate Muslims to make a grand pledge of allegiance to [Abu Bakr al] Baghdadi as a caliph.”
Maqdisi also explained in his statement that fatwas from ISIS lead to the shedding of Muslim blood and incite jihadists “to disobey the authorities' orders, particularly the orders of Sheikh Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri.”
Thus, three popular jihadist ideologues have come out against ISIS in recent weeks while endorsing Zawahiri's leadership. Particularly in the cases of Abu Qatada and Maqdisi, however, there has been some backlash to their attempts to rein in ISIS.
Reinforcing Zawahiri's messages
Until the latest announcement from al Qaeda's general command, Muhaysini had been attempting to reconcile ISIS with other Syrian jihadist groups. But it is not surprising that he quickly called on ISIS members to leave the group once al Qaeda's senior leadership had disowned it.
In previous statements, Muhaysini has said that the jihadists in Syria should view Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar as role models because of their success in integrating al Qaeda with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Muhaysini's efforts have also been praised by a senior al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) official.
Muhaysini's last reconciliation proposal, called the “Initiative of the Ummah,” was released on Jan. 23, just hours after al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri released his own message criticizing ISIS and calling on the Syrian jihadist groups to unite. Muhaysini specifically cited Zawahiri's message in his own initiative, calling it “good tidings.”
While Muhaysini's proposal garnered widespread support, including from the Islamic Front and the Al Nusrah Front, ISIS rejected it on Jan. 27. And that was probably one of the final straws in the relationship between al Qaeda's general command and ISIS, as Muhaysini's proposal dovetailed neatly with what Zawahiri and other senior al Qaeda leaders have said.
Zawahiri, Abu Muhammad al Julani (the emir of the Al Nusrah Front), and Abu Khalid al Suri all called for ISIS to submit itself to a common sharia court such that its differences with other groups could be, in their view, properly adjudicated. ISIS repeatedly refused to make this concession.
And now that their previous attempts at reconciliation have failed, Muhaysini and other jihadist ideologues are calling on ISIS members to defect.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.