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Fringe Fluidity: How Prior Extremist Involvement Serves as a Distinct Radicalization Pathway

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman

In January, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Madeleine Blackman published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism entitled “Fluidity of the Fringes.” The authors argued for the recognition of a distinct individual-level pathway for radicalization to violent extremism, “fringe fluidity,” that involves a person transitioning from adherence to one set of extremist beliefs to another. They contended that the validity of this theory can be seen in an observable pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. Gartenstein-Ross and Blackman have adapted their article for Jihadology’s readers.

This article argues for recognition of fringe fluidity as a distinct radicalization pathway in the terrorism studies literature. Most studies about individual-level radicalization examine how relatively normal people come to accept, and act in service of, extremist beliefs that counsel violence. As one prominent study said, most individuals it examined were unremarkable before they became terrorists, in that “they had ‘unremarkable’ jobs, had lived ‘unremarkable’ lives and had little, if any criminal history.” But some individuals who come to accept and act in service of a violent extremist ideology do not begin their journey as unremarkable. In some cases, individuals transition from adherence to one form of violent extremism to another—and understanding their prior extremist involvement is essential. This phenomenon can be observed frequently enough that fringe fluidity should be understood as an independent radicalization pathway.

This article demonstrates the existence of fringe fluidity by detailing the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. In recent years, over half a dozen case studies are readily identifiable in open-source literature of individuals who either made the transition from neo-Nazi beliefs to militant Islamism, or worked to advance both causes simultaneously. As this article shows, these individuals’ trajectories cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the totality of their extremist involvement.

It may seem counterintuitive or surprising that there would be a pathway between these two ideologies. After all, Islamist militants tend to view infidels writ large as adversaries, while committed Nazis view many Muslims as racially suspect. Indeed, today members of the European far right generally view Muslims as their top enemy. Yet there is a clear pipeline between the two—not necessarily a pipeline with an enormous quantitative output, but one that exists nonetheless. This pipeline has some ideological basis, including the fact that both ideologies share a common set of enemies in the Jewish people and the West (as currently constructed) more broadly. Further, the pipeline has some historical precedent.

To concretize what we mean by fringe fluidity, it is not just a process of inter-cultural borrowing and sharing of animosities that facilitate a congruence of extremist perspectives between neo-Nazi and extremist Islamist elements. Rather, fringe fluidity should be regarded as its own individual-level pathway into Islamist militancy. (We emphasize Islamist militancy as the end point because, as our case studies show, this is the direction in which fringe fluidity typically flows for these two ideologies: Rather than Islamist militants developing an interest in neo-Nazism, people with neo-Nazi sympathies far more frequently come to embrace militant Islamism.) The scholarly literature has elucidated such individual-level pathways by which Islamist militants are radicalized as personal grievance, social networks, ideology, and status-seeking. Similarly, there is an identifiable individual-level pathway by which individuals who have already embraced the belief system of neo-Nazism become acculturated into militant Islamism.

Though this article focuses on neo-Nazism and militant Islamism, we believe fringe fluidity is likely more widely applicable. Various extremist causes can likely serve as starting points for an individual’s movement into other forms of extremism. We hope that future research will test whether fringe fluidity is in fact more widely applicable. It is not clear that all three of the factors enumerated above—recent cases of convergence, some ideological overlap, and historical precedent—are necessary for fluidity to exist between two fringe ideologies. Future research can examine which factors are necessary for fluidity between two extremist ideologies, but the relationship between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism is sufficient to illuminate the existence of this radicalization pathway.

This article makes two contributions to the radicalization literature. First, it explicates a new individual-level pathway. Previous scholarship has outlined the convergence of some elements of militant Islam and the extreme right based on a sense of shared enemies, but without exploring how there might be a radicalization pathway between the two. Other academic work has viewed militant Islam and the extreme right as phenomena harboring significant mutual animosity, with little overlap, but that produce “reciprocal radicalization” in the course of their competition. Thus, there have been valuable scholarly explorations of neo-Nazism and militant Islam, but this radicalization pathway has not been identified in the scholarly literature. Second, the article raises—though does not answer—the question of whether individuals who have radicalized through fringe fluidity pose a greater danger of violence than do other extremists. People who have come to embrace more than one extremist ideology may have greater impulsiveness, or a lower threshold for action.

Our article first turns to the relevant literature on radicalization. It then examines the three factors that in our opinion demonstrate the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islam. We begin by explaining the ideological factors that, in the view of people who made the journey between the two extremist currents, bind them together. The article then delves into the history connecting these outlooks, before turning to contemporary case studies. The article concludes by discussing the utility of recognizing fringe fluidity, and proposing a future research agenda related to the concept.

Current Conceptions of Radicalization

There is no consensus definition of radicalization, nor is there a consensus model describing how it occurs. This section describes the conceptual frameworks that scholars have advanced, and argues that fringe fluidity has explanatory power regardless of which conception of radicalization a scholar adopts.

The lack of a consensus definition of radicalization is unsurprising, and does not call into question the concept’s validity. There is similarly no consensus definition of terrorism, nor is there a consensus definition of such critical and universally recognized concepts as war, civil war, or insurgency. As Peter Neumann has noted, most definitions of radicalization can be distinguished through their emphasis on either the progression to extremist views, or else to extremist behaviors. Fringe fluidity is relevant to the adoption of both extremist views and behaviors.

The fundamental insight of fringe fluidity is that prior extremist involvement provides a pathway by which an individual may come to engage in a new violent extremist ideology cognitively or behaviorally, at least if sufficient points of convergence exist between the prior and more newly-adopted form of extremism. These points of convergence—such as the ideological overlap and shared history that can be found in the case of neo-Nazism and militant Islamism—may allow an individual to transition between even two seemingly discordant movements. With respect to radical beliefs, an individual who has already embraced some form of extremism may find it easier to accept another extremist outlook that is also deeply counter-normative.

Mohammed Hafez and Creighton Mullins have made the important observation that, despite sometimes heated debates in the field of radicalization studies, there is “some consensus on the key variables that produce radicalization and violent extremism.” They highlight grievances, networks, ideologies, and enabling environments and support structures as variables about which there is agreement. But Hafez and Mullins note that despite this agreement on variables that may drive extremism, the field is far from a consensus on the models tracing an individual’s transformation. In many ways, radicalization models can be seen as metaphors for how the adoption of violent extremist views or behaviors comes about.

One influential metaphor has been that of a process. Some scholarship has criticized this conception for being overly singular in its focus, and for overemphasizing the role of ideology. Thus, subsequent scholarship has tended to reject the process metaphor, instead describing variegated pathways to terrorist violence. Reviewing key work that takes this perspective, Stefan Malthaner explains that it rejects the idea that radicalization is the culmination of “linear development,” and instead sees the phenomenon “as part of an ‘activist career’, understood as ‘a long-lasting social activity articulated by phases of joining, commitment, and defection.’” Other academic work counsels against the use of processes or pathways as metaphors. Hafez and Mullins argue for the use of puzzle as a metaphor because there is no “orderly sequence of steps or procedures that produce an output.” They maintain that this metaphor best expresses the “multifactor and contextual approach” that is required to understand radicalization.

In this article, we are agnostic about the best overarching model for conceptualizing radicalization, though we utilize the language of pathways a few times because fringe fluidity possesses certain unique characteristics that can be understood as distinct from radicalization rooted primarily in, say, ideology or discrete social networks. It is clear that debates over which radicalization model is most powerful will continue for years. The concept of fringe fluidity should have explanatory power regardless of which model scholars or analysts employ.

The Role of Hate Speech. Hate speech also has explanatory power for the study of radicalization regardless of which model scholars employ. As this section shows, hate speech is a formidable mechanism for extremist groups to identify and define key out-groups. We highlight the role that hate speech plays because one of the most obvious connections between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism is that both view the Jewish people as an arch-enemy—and individuals who have exhibited fringe fluidity have fingered Jew-hatred as critical to their transition from one extremist outlook to the other.

Hate speech can magnify grievances and help mobilize an audience to violence. Hateful messaging can thus aid the indoctrination of extremist groups’ potential recruits. Hateful rhetoric can break down psychological barriers to violence, while repeated exposure to and engagement in hateful rhetoric accelerates the process of dehumanizing one’s foes, and thus morally disengaging from physical harm inflicted upon them.

Experts generally agree that individuals derive a certain level of self-concept from group membership. One’s identification with a social group provides a set of norms and behaviors to adhere to, as well as a sense of pride and self-esteem. By positively differentiating our in-group from another out-group, we can bolster our individual sense of positive distinctiveness. But there are also pitfalls to this kind of social categorization, particularly when extreme priority is given to group identification, and when out-groups are vilified. One set of dangers relates to discrimination based on group identity. Even more dangerous, the cognitive prioritization of the group can depress an individual’s “psychological threshold” for carrying out acts of violence. If a group portrays violent or alienating behavior as compulsory and vindicated, then an individual belonging to that group is more likely to adopt this mentality, and engage in such acts.

Hateful rhetoric strengthens the salience of collective identity and can condition individuals to perceive members of an out-group in a highly pejorative manner. Such messaging exaggerates the differences between in-group members and out-group members. Hateful messages targeting an out-group often feature accusations and alarming statements depicting the out-group as an existential threat to the in-group. Such assertions heighten in-group members’ “lack of empathy and increased animus to out-groups.”

Hate speech can also function as a mechanism for dehumanization, which social psychologists and historians have connected to violence. Alexandra Roginsky and Alexander Tsesis note that hate speech employs “dehumanizing images to justify exclusion, discrimination, and, in genocidal cases, elimination of identifiable groups.” Put simply, exposure to the dehumanizing rhetoric and beliefs that characterize hate speech can reduce psychological impediments to violence by encouraging emotional and cognitive detachment between the actor and target. “To perceive another as human activates empathetic reactions through perceived similarity,” writes Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura. But, notes Bandura, once a target is dehumanized, it is no longer seen as possessing “feelings, hopes and concerns”—which are characteristic of other human beings—but rather is viewed as a “sub-human” object. Adam Lankford explains that “if your enemies are not regarded in human terms, it is much easier to exterminate them.”

Dehumanization is only one aspect of the psychological disengagement process that can enable militant violence. Bandura explains that normal individuals can be transformed into killers when the “moral value of killing” is restructured, and self-restraint is removed. Hate speech and extremist ideology often mutually reinforce one another. Hateful rhetoric can advance an extremist ideology by articulating group grievances and facilitating a process of moral restructuring. In turn, writes Bandura, the persuasiveness of hateful messages is stronger when paired with “religious principles, righteous ideologies, and nationalistic imperatives.” Hateful rhetoric and extremist ideologies can thus create a cyclical process wherein ideology prescribes a moral framework, while hate speech allows individuals to tune out voices opposed to their growing extremism, and lowers their moral disinclination to carry out or support violence.

As previously explained, three factors—ideological overlap, historical precedent, and recent cases—clarify the fringe fluidity pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. Now that this article has situated fringe fluidity within theories of radicalization, we explore the three factors that lead us to conclude that this pathway exists. We first outline the ideological commonalities between these two extremist strains.

Ideological Commonalities between Neo-Nazism and Militant Islamism

Several ideological commonalities exist between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism. Both offer similar cognitive frameworks, as they are totalitarian movements that propose rigid, far-reaching, and all-consuming worldviews that divide the world unambiguously into “good” and “evil.” Both movements have revolutionary aspirations, seeking to replace the existing order with new states “built around racial or religious exclusivity.” Michaela Glaser, who works on preventing violent extremism for the German Youth Institute, sees these ideological similarities as critical to the phenomenon that we dub fringe fluidity in this article. Commenting on Sascha Lemanski, a former neo-Nazi who became an ISIS-supporting jihadist (who is discussed later in this article), Glaser noted that “extremist ideologies offer people … a clear distinction between good and evil and a sense that its adherents belong to a special, chosen group.”

Perhaps most significantly, both ideologies have clearly defined in-groups and out-groups. The Jewish people are a key out-group for both ideologies, with neo-Nazi and militant Islamist spokesmen arguing that the American government is controlled by a shadowy Jewish elite. Indeed, a shared enmity toward Jewish people frequently lies at the center of cases of Nazi-jihadist fluidity.

Jewish People as a Key Out-Group. Both Nazis and militant Islamists hold the Jewish people responsible for a disproportionate amount of humankind’s misfortunes. This perspective is articulated in copious speeches, statements and writings of militant Islamist and Nazi leaders. While this section highlights the views of Sayyid Qutb and Adolf Hitler in particular, this shared perception of the Jewish people as an enemy is unambiguous in both movements, expressed by individuals who range from the top echelons of leadership to the foot soldier level.

In his infamous essay “Our Struggle with the Jews,” Sayyid Qutb—a key ideological forebear of today’s militant Islamists—wrote: “Everywhere the Jews have been they have committed unprecedented abominations. From such creatures who kill, massacre and defame prophets one can only expect the spilling of human blood and dirty means which would further their machinations and evil.” Hitler’s sentiments were, of course, similar: Anti-Semitism was a bedrock ideology of the Nazi movement. Like Qutb’s accusation that the Jews commit “unprecedented abominations,” Hitler asked in his autobiography Mein Kampf: “Was there any excrement, any shamelessness in any form, above all in cultural life, in which at least one Jew would not have been involved?” To Hitler, the Jews are universal villains, their mere existence menacing and malign. He compared the Jewish people to “maggots” in a “decaying body.”

Both Qutb and Hitler not only blamed and vilified the Jewish people, but dehumanized them. As we have explained, the dehumanization of an out-group is common among extremist movements, particularly those that seek to incite violence against, or cause the extermination of, a group. In the Nazi and militant Islamist movements, the dehumanization of Jews occurs through degradation and demonization.

Degradation includes the reduction of the Jewish people to vermin, such as Qutb and Hitler’s portrayal of Jewish people as murderous “creatures,” loathsome “maggots.” The cognitive distance that both movements create between in-group members and Jews increases the acceptability of violence. According to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, Jewish people were “unconditionally exterminable,” a depiction he advanced in the Nazi party’s propaganda. As scholar David Livingstone Smith explained, “all that Goebbels could see were vermin: carriers of the Jewish disease—a disease that would engulf the world unless it was obliterated.” In one diary entry, Goebbels wrote that Jews “are no longer human beings, but animals. It is, therefore, also no humanitarian task, but a task for the surgeon. One has got to cut here, and that most radically. Or Europe will vanish one day due to the Jewish disease.” The depiction of Jewish people as the personification of malice and grime persists today among adherents to both neo-Nazi and militant Islamist ideologies.

A second form of dehumanization exhibited by both groups is demonization. David Patterson notes that both movements see “the Jew” as someone who “not only commits evil but embodies the essence of evil and is therefore beyond remission.” In Mein Kampf, for example, Hitler wrote that “no one need be surprised if among our people the personification of the devil as the symbol of evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.” Similarly, Qutb wrote that Jews represent the “blackest devil and source of the worst anti-Islamic machinations.” Jewish people, both movements contend, are not only responsible for spreading corruption and evil, but are intrinsically wicked and immoral by virtue of their ethnicity.

This combination of demonization and degradation fuels the “exterminationist anti-Semitism” that exists within both ideologies. While comparing a particular ethnic group to disgusting, lowly creatures undoubtedly facilitates the process of moral disengagement necessary for violence, declaring them to actually be an altogether different species provides the justification for extermination. As Elana Gomel has explained, no license to exterminate a people comes from saying they are like bacteria. But “if the Jews are really parasites, a different biological species, masquerading as humans but in fact, dangerous, alien and strange, killing them becomes as morally neutral as cleansing a house from bugs.”

Hatred of Jews is further fueled by both movements’ belief in a “Zionist conspiracy,” the idea that Jewish people are secretly plotting to manipulate or control the world. Contemporary conceptions of this purported conspiracy are often rooted in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery birthed in czarist Russia that claimed to be a “record of secret meetings of Jewish leaders.” Though the Protocols were exposed as a fraud in the 1920s, the document became a key facet of Nazi propaganda. The Nazi party published at least twenty-three editions of the Protocols between 1933 and the onset of the Second World War. In “Our Struggle with the Jews,” Sayyid Qutb referenced the Protocols multiple times. Qutb further articulated his belief in a “Jewish master plan” in Milestones, declaring that the Jewish people intend to “eliminate all limitations, especially the limitations imposed by faith and religion, so that [they] may penetrate into the body politic of the whole world and then may be free to perpetuate their evil designs.”

Anti-Semitism and the scapegoating of Jewish people plays an important role in the ability of some individuals to move seamlessly from neo-Nazism to the militant Islamist movement. The “Jewish question” looms large for both ideologies, and for some individuals, scapegoating of “the Jew” is more powerful than the movements’ differences. In addition, the fluidity between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism has historical precedent, which our next section explores.

The Historical Convergence

In the view of contemporary figures who have attempted to reconcile militant Islamist beliefs with support for neo-Nazism, the historical convergence between Nazism and militant Islamism is best exemplified by Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini. The former grand mufti of Jerusalem, Husseini is notorious for his collaboration with Hitler’s Nazi regime. Husseini was both anti-Semitic and anti-British, a combination that aligned closely with Hitler’s interests.

Though Husseini began cultivating ties to the Nazi movement as early as 1933, a publicly acknowledged reciprocal, cooperative relationship did not form until 1937, when the British Royal Commission published the Peel Report recommending that Palestine be divided into separate Jewish and Arab states. Following the Peel Report’s publication, Husseini publicly voiced his support for the Third Reich, and requested that the Nazis assist his fight against the Jews. Fearing that Jewish statehood might strengthen “international Jewry,” Nazi Germany began to see the Arabs as “assets” for their cause, and to view Husseini as a potential strategic partner. Nazi Germany began supplying Palestinian Arabs with weapons to combat the anticipated Jewish state, while the Palestinian press promoted Nazism and European anti-Semitic propaganda. Toward the end of 1937, Husseini was forced to flee Palestine to avoid arrest for inciting a rebellion against the British Mandate.

By 1939, Husseini operated out of Baghdad. He collaborated with Rashid Ali al-Gaylani to orchestrate a Nazi-backed coup. When the British stopped the coup, Husseini was forced to flee once again. In November 1941, he settled in Berlin, and almost immediately obtained an audience with Hitler, where Husseini pledged his support for the Third Reich.

In the years that followed, Husseini played a relatively important role for the Nazis. He made pro-Axis radio broadcasts designed for the Arab world, and helped to organize the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar, a volunteer force in the former Yugoslavia composed predominantly of Bosnian Muslims. Husseini authored a treatise, Islam und Judentum (“Islam and Judaism”), to promote these units’ dedication to the Nazi cause. The treatise was composed of a series of crude caricatures of the Jewish people that together formed an argument for eliminationist anti-Semitism.

Following Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, Hitler’s erstwhile officers fled in an effort to avoid accountability for the Nazi regime’s atrocities. Egypt emerged as a particularly important safe haven. Among other notables, Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini fled there in June 1946, and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup created further opportunity for Nazis to embed themselves in the new government.

Johann von Leers, who had been a high-ranking assistant to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, produced material for Nasser attacking the United States and Israel. Von Leers even converted to Islam, adopting the name Oman Amin von Leers. Corresponding with a fellow fascist, von Leers opined that “if my nation had got Islam instead of Christianity we should not have had all the traitors we had in World War II.” Martin Lee notes that several other Nazi propagandists followed von Leers’s lead in relocating to Egypt and adopting Arabic names, including Hans Appler and Louis Heiden. Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny, whom the Allies once described as “the most dangerous man in Europe,” became a key military advisor to Nasser. In 1953-54, Skorzeny planned the first wave of terrorist attacks into Israel and the Gaza Strip carried out by newly-trained Palestinian guerillas.

Some of these historical connections are not between Nazism and jihadism, but rather between Nazi figures and Arab nationalists. Nonetheless, this historical precedent has proven important for contemporary neo-Nazis who have made the transition to immersion in the jihadist movement. The fact that prominent Third Reich figures cooperated with Arab regimes and militants can help neo-Nazis overcome reservations they may have about the possible ethnic impurity of their new allies. Indeed, the next part of this article shows that the figures discussed in this section were explicitly referenced by militants who saw neo-Nazism and militant Islamism as reconcilable.

Case Studies of Contemporary Nazi-Militant Islamist Fluidity

This article has explained how fringe fluidity can serve as an independent radicalization pathway; and it has explained how individuals who exemplify the phenomenon see the ideological synergy and historical connection between some aspects of neo-Nazism and militant Islamism as proof of their compatibility. This section now goes beyond the broad case for fringe fluidity and turns to case studies that demonstrate its existence.

This section examines eight people who illustrate fringe fluidity between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism: David Myatt, Steven Smyrek, Emerson Begolly, Ahmed Huber, Sascha Lemanski, Thomas Usztics, Diego José Frías Álvarez, and Nicholas Young.

David Myatt. One the most famous examples of fringe fluidity is David Myatt, a founder of the British National Socialist Movement. Myatt converted to Islam in 1998.

According to George Michael, Myatt “has arguably done more than any other theorist to develop a synthesis of the extreme right and Islam.” Prior to his religious conversion, Myatt authored a handbook entitled A Practical Guide to Aryan Revolution, and served as the ideological leader of the British neo-Nazi gang Combat 18. In an online article titled “From Neo-Nazi to Muslim,” Myatt acknowledged the apparent irony of his conversion. He wrote: “These were the people who I had been fighting on the streets, I had swore [sic] at and had used violence against—indeed, one of my terms of imprisonment was a result of me leading a gang of skinheads in a fight against ‘Pakis’.” But Myatt eventually lost hope in the far right’s ability to combat Zionism and the West. He explained that he now believed there would never be a successful uprising “in any Western nation, by nationalists, racial nationalists, or National Socialists—because these people lack the desire, the motivation, the ethos, to do this and because they do not have the support of even a large minority of their own folk.”

This disillusion contributed to Myatt’s turn to Islam, after which he assumed the name Abdul Aziz ibn Myatt. Myatt adopted a militant interpretation of the faith, and drew a straight-line connection between his fight against the Jewish people as a neo-Nazi and as a Muslim. Much of Myatt’s public writing during his time as a Muslim focused on encouraging enemies of the Jewish people to unite under a single banner. He exhorted “all enemies of the Zionists to embrace the Jihad,” referred to Islam as the “true martial religion,” and claimed that it “will most effectively fight against the Jews and the Americans.” Myatt praised Osama bin Laden, describing the al-Qaeda leader as “an exemplary warrior who has forsaken a life of luxury to pursue his Islamic duty.”

A careful review of Myatt’s writings reveals how his hatred for Jewish people and enmity toward the “so-called New World Order” superseded the discordant elements of militant Islamist and Nazi ideology. After interviewing Myatt, George Michael described the thrust of his argument as holding that “the primary battle against the Zionist occupation government (ZOG) has shifted from the West to the Islamic world.” Indeed, Myatt perceived a synthesis between the two movements’ goals, believing that the fight between militant Islam and the West “makes the extreme right’s goals more easily obtainable.” Consequently, in an April 2003 interview with Michael, Myatt deemed an alliance between militant Islamists and neo-Nazis to be not only “possible,” but “indeed necessary.”

Myatt eventually came to reject both Islam and extremism in favor of a new philosophical outlook that he dubbed the Way of Pathei-Mathos. Despite this later conversion, Myatt provides an example of how one’s commitment to anti-Semitism can bridge the ideological divide between Nazism and jihadism.

Emerson Begolly is a Nazi sympathizer turned jihadist who hails from Pennsylvania. He had been involved in neo-Nazism at a young age, as Begolly’s father introduced him to Nazi beliefs, and dressed him as a Nazi. Begolly even posted photos on his MySpace page depicting him dressed as a Nazi while he was a teenager.

Begolly later converted to Islam and became an active member of several jihadist forums. Similar to Myatt, for Begolly anti-Semitism served as a tie binding his two distinct involvements with extremism. He established a reputation for particularly harsh anti-Semitic posts, even relative to the extremist forums in which he participated. In one post in which he referenced Hitler’s Final Solution, Begolly wrote: “The only the good about that all the jews weren’t gassed that that insha’Allah someday we will get a chance to kill jews ourselves.” Begolly was also known for collecting, distributing, and producing his own nasheeds, Islamic works of acapella music. Many Islamist militants produce nasheeds because they believe musical instruments are religiously proscribed, thus making acapella one of the few permissible forms of music. Begolly composed an original nasheed titled “When the Jew’s Blood Reds My Knife, Then My Life is Free from Strife”:

When the Jew’s blood reds my knife, Then my life is free from strife.

Hiding behind rocks and trees, I’ll find them with greatest ease.

Make them get down on their knees, Slaughter them despite their pleas.

Throw them in the ovens hot, Soap and lampshades sold and bought.

Made of the Jews that we shot, Mercy’s something I have not.

With the bomb and machine gun, Blast at them and watch them run.

We will have a lot of fun, Shoot and kill Jews one by one.

Rise up, O Salahuddin, Great and brave Mujahideen.

Like the Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, For the Love of Filisteen.

At al-Aqsa we shall meet, After Israel’s defeat.

Their dead bodies at our feet, Taste of victory is sweet.

Begolly exhorted others to participate in violent attacks in the United States. Information presented in Begolly’s prosecution showed that he was “an active administrator” of a jihadist forum known as Ansar al Mujahideen English Forum. Writing under the name Abu Nancy, Begolly “systematically solicited jihadists to use firearms, explosives, and propane tanks against targets such as police stations, post offices, Jewish schools and daycare centers, military facilities, train lines, bridges, cell phone towers, and water plants.” On December 18, 2010, Begolly uploaded a guide with instructions on how to manufacture explosives. He was sentenced to 102 months in prison after pleading guilty to soliciting crimes of violence.

Steven Smyrek. Another case of fringe fluidity is Steven Smyrek, a former German neo-Nazi. While most cases in this section involve individuals who gravitated toward Sunni militancy, Smyrek was arrested in Israel in 1997 for planning to carry out a suicide attack on behalf of Hizballah, a Shia militant group. Smyrek had converted to Islam prior to travelling to Tel Aviv. Though he was sentenced to ten years in prison, Israeli security services released Smyrek as part of a prisoner exchange agreement in 2004 after he signed a document that reportedly renounced violence.

But upon his return to Europe, Smyrek was unrepentant. “It’s an honor to die for Islam and for Allah,” he told a filmmaker in a documentary interview. “When the order comes you have to carry it out and there’s not time to ask if there is a God or not, or to think what will happen after you’re dead, without feeling you simply have to lay down your life as Allah decreed.”

The late Ahmed Huber was born Albert Friedrich Armand Huber in 1927. Like Myatt and Begolly, anti-Semitism was apparently Huber’s overarching framework, and driven by it, he found common ground between neo-Nazi and Islamist extremist beliefs—as well as between Sunni and Shia Islamist militancy.

Huber converted to Islam in his late thirties. In contrast to the other cases examined in this section, Huber converted prior to embracing extreme right-wing beliefs. His first exposure to Islam came in 1959, when he was asked to shelter several Algerians fleeing the country’s war of independence. Prior to that, Huber describes himself as having been a “young socialist journalist” and “Protestant Christian, very tolerant, liberal, and not practicing … religious, but not too much.” In his conversations with the Algerians, Huber became “fascinated” by Islam, and recited his shahada (declaration of faith) in 1962. According to Huber, upon urging from the Egyptian embassy in Switzerland, he later repeated his shahada in Cairo, where he met Gamal Abdel Nasser. By Huber’s account, Nasser sparked his later devotion to Nazism. Huber described meeting Nasser as “a complete cultural shock,” including when Nasser told Huber “some things about the Third Reich and about the Second World War, and about Adolf Hitler.” It is worth recalling that Nasser had sheltered Nazi war criminals who were fleeing justice. Also present in Egypt during Nasser’s rule was Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, who likewise would be a critical influence on Huber. Reflecting on an interview he had conducted with Huber, George Michael wrote that Husseini “was instrumental in shaping Huber’s views, not only on Islam but also on the Third Reich.”

Though Huber was Sunni, he also displayed affinity for Shia militancy. This underscores how Huber prioritized the out-groups whom he opposed and despised. Huber told George Michael that he “became more deeply involved with Islam” after traveling to Iran and meeting Ayatollah Khomeini in the mid-1980s. Huber said that during this journey, he was “touched by Shi’ite Islam and felt [sympathy] for the legality of the Shi’a Muslim and especially for the Islamic republic.” Huber confirmed in his interview with Michael that his views on Iran and Shia militancy were influenced by his hatred of out-groups, describing “two great menaces, the power of Zionism in the United States over the United States, and as a consequence of this, the utterly hostile policies of the United States government.”

On November 7, 2001, Huber was named by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as one of several key terrorist financiers associated with the banking group al-Taqwa. Al-Taqwa’s support for terrorism was significant enough in the assessment of U.S. officials that President George W. Bush spoke of its closure at length in an announcement. President Bush said that al-Taqwa raised “funds for Al Qaeda. They manage, invest and distribute those funds. They provide terrorist supporters with Internet service, secure telephone communications and other ways of sending messages and sharing information. They even arrange for the shipment of weapons.”

Huber admitted to George Michael that he served as a member of al-Taqwa’s administration council from 1988 until the bank’s closure in 2002. Though Huber denied any operational link to al-Qaeda, Michael noted that he was clearly “enthusiastic over the 9/11 attacks,” as he “saw them as a catalyst that would bring together elements of the extreme right and militant Islam.” Huber told a CNN interviewer in 2002 that al-Qaeda was “a very honorable organization… If they killed a few American generals in the Pentagon, I don’t feel very sorry, because these guys have done a lot of trouble.” The same video showed the interior of Huber’s study, which featured portraits of Iran’s supreme leader, Adolf Hitler, and Osama bin Laden, as well as a relic Huber prized: a physical piece of Hitler’s house.

German citizen Sascha Lemanski, according to reports, had previously been part of a prominent neo-Nazi group in Germany known as the Immortals. Prior to Lemanski’s conversion to Islam, he publicly accused Muslims of causing the “creeping death of the people,” and of trying to impose sharia in Germany. In a May 2013 YouTube video titled “Tips for the fight against cockroaches,” Lemanski called for attacks against immigrants.

But Lemanski had converted to Islam by 2014. He faced court charges that year for disseminating ISIS messages online. But Lemanski’s involvement in jihadism continued to deepen even after these legal troubles. In February 2017, German authorities arrested Lemanski as he was planning a terrorist attack. In interrogations following his arrest, Lemanski “admitted to planning to lure police officers or soldiers into a trap and then kill them with a homemade explosive.” Authorities also recovered “materials required for the construction of an unconventional blasting device,” including “chemical materials required for the production of an acetone peroxide explosive device, as well as the electronic components required for remote ignition.”

Thomas Usztics is a German national. Born in 1985 to parents who had immigrated from Hungary, Usztics had ties to the far-right and neo-Nazi scenes in his youth. He converted to Islam in 2008, and radicalized quickly, joining the Deutsche Taliban Mujahideen (DTM) within a year of his conversion. DTM is a militant splinter group that was originally part of the Islamic Jihad Union, and is based geographically in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region (Waziristan and Hindu Kush). It is composed of German-speaking Islamists, and prioritizes the ouster of non-Muslim forces from Afghanistan, including German soldiers, while espousing attacks on German soil.

With DTM, Usztics adopted the nom de guerre of Hamsa al-Majaari (Hamsa the Hungarian). He received weapons and explosives training, took part in an attack against a NATO base that housed American and Afghan forces, and appeared in two jihadist propaganda videos. In the videos, Usztics proclaimed that DTM would continue fighting until all Western troops had left Afghanistan, and urged Muslims in Germany to join the jihad in the Hindu Kush, either by travelling to join the fight, or at least supporting it financially. He implored his co-religionists in one video: “Sell your belongings so we can continue buying weapons.” Usztics also contacted German citizens by email, and through this correspondence took to “demanding political and financial support” for DTM.

Despite his fanaticism, Usztics became disillusioned with DTM, and disheartened by the hardships he suffered. He later revealed the living conditions that he and his wife (also a German convert, whom he had brought to Waziristan) had to endure, which he described as unfit for human habitation. Usztics described a shocking lack of hygiene, people who “were spitting and vomiting,” and disrespectful treatment of women. Usztics said that only after he arrived in Turkey, “finally I could hold hands with my wife in public.” But the biggest factor prompting his split from DTM, according to Usztic, was the gruesome death of some of his German friends in a firefight with Pakistani soldiers.

Usztics and his wife were arrested in Turkey and extradited to Germany, where Usztics was sentenced to over four years in prison for membership in a terrorist group and preparation of a serious act of subversion while abroad. Like David Myatt, Usztics has now publicly renounced jihadism.

The case of Diego José Frías Álvarez exemplifies how a commitment to anti-Semitism can bridge the ideological divide between Nazism and jihadism. Frías Álvarez is a Spanish neo-Nazi activist and former member of the Republican Social Movement (MSR: Moviment Social Republicà), one of Spain’s most active neo-fascist and extreme right-wing political organizations. Frías Álvarez’s political activism reached its zenith when he topped the MSR’s electoral appointment list in the 2006 parliamentary elections. But Frías Álvarez won only about 0.04% of the votes. In addition to MSR’s connection to other anti-Semitic parties, it also allied with European far-right parties with anti-Muslim politics.

In mid-2015, the Catalonian police force Mossos d’Esquadra arrested Frías Álvarez for his suspected involvement with a jihadist cell known as the “Islamic Fraternity for the Preaching of Jihad.” Though he was not a Muslim convert, he was a co-conspirator, providing material assistance in the form of a weapons arsenal and suggested targets of attack.

The cell’s leader was Antonio Sáez Martínez, a Granada barber who converted to Islam in 2012 and subsequently became known as Aalí. Sáez Martínez initially used the network to send recruits to ISIS camps in Syria and Iraq. But as authorities arrested several would-be foreign fighters, the cell redirected its efforts to committing attacks around Barcelona. One example of a planned attack, designed to starkly mirror ISIS’s acts of slaughter in Syria and Iraq, was to kidnap a victim, put him in an orange jumpsuit, and behead him in front of cameras. Other planned attacks included the bombing of a Jewish bookstore, and further attacks against synagogues, the Parliament of Catalonia, and police stations.

Initially the Islamic Fraternity lacked the necessary materials to carry out these attacks. Thus, Frías Álvarez was introduced to the plot through a contact of Sáez Martínez, as the neo-Nazi was understood to be an intermediary capable of obtaining weapons and explosive materials. But the role Frías Álvarez played in the plot was not merely that of a middle man. Demonstrating how jihadists and neo-Nazis can be bound by common enemies, Frías Álvarez suggested several targets in the Barcelona metropolitan area to the cell, such as the Mossos d’Esquadra police department on the Plaza de España. This central role played by the neo-Nazi was corroborated by two witnesses who are now under police protection, and also by photos found on arrestees’ mobile phones.

Thus, though Frías Álvarez had been active in political and social groups that were overtly anti-Muslim, his deep-seated hatred for Jews led him to conspire with a jihadist terror cell. A shared out-group enabled an alliance that may seem improbable.

Nicholas Young. On December 18, 2017, a jury in northern Virginia convicted Nicholas Young of attempting to provide material support to ISIS and also obstruction of justice. (The obstruction of justice charge was recently reversed on appeal.) It was a landmark case, as it was the first time an American member of law enforcement was convicted in a terrorism case. Unlike the previous cases, Young was arrested following a so-called “sting operation” by federal law enforcement. Among other things, Young provided gift cards to an undercover agent that he thought ISIS would use to communicate.

In addition to his support for ISIS, Young appeared to have longstanding neo-Nazi sympathies. Trial testimony suggested that Young’s early interest in extremist Islam stemmed from his anti-Semitic outlook:

“Don’t discount an alliance with Muslims to combat the Jews,” Young said after attending a neo-Nazi gathering in 2000, testified college friend, Ian Campbell, an Arlington County police corporal.

Young gave Campbell a copy of Serpent’s Walk, a 1991 novel published by the white supremacist National Alliance. Set nearly 100 years after World War II, it tells a story of SS officers who continued to fight for their cause until they were poised for global dominance. Agents also found a copy in Young’s home.

In addition, Young’s home and hard drive contained a significant amount of Nazi and anti-Semitic paraphernalia. Some, but not all, could be attributed to the fact that he was a World War II reenactor. But unlike most reenactors, Young had a Nazi symbol tattooed on his arm, the official insignia of the 9th SS Panzer Division “Hohenstaufen.” The license plate on Young’s truck read FRI KRP, a reference to the Freikorps German volunteer units. Though the Freikorps had existed since the eighteenth century, following World War I it became largely associated with “former World War I veterans, and nationalist students, opposed to Germany’s post-War democratic system.” Germany’s defeat in the First World War pushed many Freikorps members to employ what European historian Robert Gerwarth called “bloody rituals of retribution” against perceived enemies in the wake of this loss. “Jews and women featured most prominently as the targets of Freikorps brutality,” Gerwarth writes. “Freikorps blamed Jews, and women, for the weakening of the home front that had led to military defeat.”

Among his materials, Young had photographs of some of the key figures representing the historical convergence described in this article, including several photos of Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini and a portrait of Otto Skorzeny. One particularly revelatory document is a two-page note that Young wrote featuring prayers for family members and other figures. The prayer is divided into four sections: prayers for the dead, the living, coworkers, and the Ummah. In addition to listing close friends and family members, the section dedicated to the dead lists “Hitler, [Otto] Skorzeny, Hajj Amin al-Hussaini [sic], Mussolini, Saddam Husein [sic]. Prophet Muhamed [sic], John the Baptist & all the Companions” as individuals for whom he was praying. Figures listed in his prayers for the dead represent Nazism (Hitler), Fascism (Mussolini), and the bridge between Nazism and Arab nationalism (Husseini and Skorzeny).


Though individual-level studies of radicalization overwhelmingly focus on how normal people with unremarkable ideas come to embrace an extremist ideology, this article demonstrates that there is another pathway. Sometimes individuals transition from the embrace of one form of violent extremism to another. That transition should be recognized as its own distinct individual-level pathway, which we call fringe fluidity. This article has focused on the pathway between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism because it is clearly discernible. As outlined in this article, several factors illuminate this pathway: the ideologies have significant (though not perfect) overlap in how they define their out-groups, there is a historical connection that can be mollifying for those moving from neo-Nazism to the embrace or aid of militant Islamism, and numerous contemporary case studies demonstrate this fluidity.

The concept of fringe fluidity is important because whatever metaphor one employs for radicalization—a process, pathway, puzzle, or something else—the phenomenon will have a distinct shape for those who have already been immersed in one extremist ideology. As multiple factors seem to be propelling us into a new age of extremism, the importance of developing a better understanding of the various journeys through which people embrace violent extremism will grow.

Future research into fringe fluidity can examine what factors are necessary for this fluidity to exist between two extremist ideologies. As we have noted, there may be a variety of extremist causes that can serve as starting points for an individual’s movement into other varieties of extremism. Other apparent cases of fringe fluidity that we have observed include movement from leftist militancy to militant Islamism, and movement from left-wing to right-wing extremism. It is not clear that the multiple interlocking factors driving the fluidity between neo-Nazism and militant Islamism are needed for such a pathway between two ideologies to exist.

Future research can also examine whether there are significant demographic or other differences in those who radicalize through fringe fluidity. Do they tend to be older? Do they radicalize faster than individuals who start their journey having lived an unremarkable life? Is there a greater propensity for “radicalization of action,” and not just radicalization of belief, for people who travel this path? All of these are important questions which we believe deserve exploration. This article begins the broader discussion about the relationship between and among extremist ideologies by offering an overarching framework for recognizing fringe fluidity, and demonstrating that this fluidity exists.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the chief executive officer of the private firm Valens Global and a non-resident fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Madeleine Blackman is the research manager at Valens Global.

The Clear Banner sub-blog on is primarily focused on Sunni foreign fighting. It does not have to just be related to the phenomenon in Syria. It can also cover any location that contains Sunni foreign fighters. If you are interested in writing on this subject please email me at azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

A Brief Update On Ethnic Georgian Foreign Fighters In The Islamic State

By Bennett Clifford


In 2015, the government of Georgia estimated that 41 of its citizens were active combatants in jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, while other reports suggest that the contingent may have been as large as 100.1 The bulk of the foreign jihadist fighters from Georgia originated from the Pankisi Valley, an isolated set of villages in the north-east of the country that is renowned as a source of prominent foreign fighters, including the Islamic State (IS)’s deceased minister of war, Tarkhan Batirashvili (Umar al-Shishani).2 The majority population in the Pankisi Valley are Kists. Related closely to the Chechens of the North Caucasus, the Kists maintain distinct religious traditions, customs, folk laws (adat-tsesebi), and a unique dialect of the Chechen language.

Most of Georgia’s foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are ethnic Kists from the Pankisi Valley, but the second largest demographic are ethnic Georgian Muslims.3 A database maintained by the author includes eight ethnic Georgians who successfully traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. Unlike in the Pankisi Valley, where foreign fighter recruitment is geographically consolidated, ethnic Georgian fighters come from various settlements and villages throughout the country. During Soviet rule in Georgia, particularly during its twilight years, ethnic Georgian Muslims living in the high mountainous communities of the south-western province of Adjara were resettled throughout the country due to a combination of ecological disasters and government planning policies.4 Most of the ethnic Georgian foreign fighters came from these “eco-migrant” settlements: in particular, the villages of Nasakirali and Zoti in the western province of Guria, and particular villages within the Tsalka municipality in the central Kvemo Kartli region.

This brief post covers the reported fates of three members of the ethnic Georgian foreign fighter contingent after the loss of IS territory in Syria and Iraq, revealing new information on their status and whereabouts. Perhaps most importantly, one of the major (and arguably, only) IS Georgian-language propagandists and the group’s standard-bearer, Tamaz Chaghalidze, is ostensibly alive and has returned to social media during the past few months, posting a barrage of new Georgian-language material. These posts glorify the martyred “heroes of the Islamic State,” offer justifications for IS’ losses in the sieges of Mosul and Raqqa, and provide insight on other Georgians in Syria and Iraq. One post, included in full with an English translation below, discusses the fates of two members of the group– Badri Iremadze and Murman Paichadze.

Who is Tamaz Chaghalidze?

Post from an autobiography on Tamaz Chaghalidze’s WordPress site. “Ahmad Jurji, also known as Tamaz Chaghalidze, was born on December 3, 1988 in the village of Zoti in Chokhatauri municipality.”

Tamaz Chaghalidze (kunya: Ahmad Jurji), largely unknown outside of Georgia, is directly responsible for the majority of IS propaganda in the Georgian language. Born in 1988 in the village of Zoti in the province of Guria, Chaghalidze left for the city of Batumi in Adjara in 2006, where he studied international economics at Shota Rustaveli State University. During his eight years in Batumi, he transitioned from participation as a political operative for a major Georgian party to an active figure in the local Islamist scene, and in 2014, he traveled to Syria to join the jihad.5 As an opening salvo in a flood of propaganda, shortly after his departure to Syria he published a video in August 2014 declaring his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and threatening Georgia for its mistreatment of Muslims.6

The video reached viral status in Georgia and resulted in the opening of an investigation by Georgia’s State Security Services into Chaghalidze’s threats against Georgia.7 Chaghalidze remained active online, utilizing a still-active Odnoklassiki profile which he opened before his departure to disseminate even more threats. Stylistically, Chaghalidze’s content errs towards self-promotion and directly appeals to ethnic Georgian Muslims, particularly eco-migrants. In many posts, he utilizes Adjaran dialect and slang, punctuating Salafi-jihadist religious teachings with invectives targeting members of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Georgian Muslim institutions, the Georgian armed forces, and others:

Attention- to the kaafirs in Georgia who did anything against Islam and Muslims as part of NATO missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa,8 or in Georgia itself in Lapanquri,9 Pankisi, Guria, Adjara, Javakheti or other regions. We know all your actions and you will pay for everything with your dirty kaafir blood. I warn you again- do not touch any Muslim brother or mosque or anything that concerns the name of Islam; otherwise, one day, when the black flags fly over Georgia, you will have nowhere to escape. You will beg on your knees, and they will show it on TV programs. You rats will regret the day you were created. We will cause so much trouble for the Patriarchate in Adjara that you robe-wearing rats10 will wish you were created as reptiles. I swear, by Allah, every kaafir will pay with their dirty blood. The one chance that civilians have is to accept Islam and pledge allegiance to the Caliphate.”

From 2015 until 2017, Chaghalidze maintained an extensive online presence from his base in Syria, running his own personal WordPress blog. In addition, he contributed to several other sites on WordPress, Facebook, Tumblr, Odnoklassiki, Myspace and Telegram entitled “Xalifat” [Caliphate] or “Daula” [The State], and ran multiple sock-puppet Facebook accounts. These pages disseminated efforts by Chaghalidze and other Georgian-speaking foreign fighters to translate official IS media products, such as the magazines Dabiq and Rumiyyah and the al-Bayan radio service, into their native tongue. As part of an ongoing investigation, the Georgian government repeatedly blocked the IP addresses of these pages, shutting off access in Georgia.11 Each time a page was shut down, another appeared in its place. Eventually, many of Chaghalidze’s efforts were consolidated into the group Bushra, which operates a still-active Facebook group, several Telegram channels, a account and uses a TutaNota email address.

Posters for two official Islamic State releases in the Georgian language- “Message to the Georgian people” (2015, top) and “My God! I hasten towards you so that you would be satisfied with me” (2016, bottom)

Eventually, partially due to the success of Chaghalidze’s efforts in the unofficial realm, IS official media outlets published two releases in the Georgian language. In November 2015, IS’ al-Furat Media Foundation released “Gzavnili kartvel khalkhs” [Message to the Georgian People], its first full-length video in the Georgian language. The 12-minute video featured four ethnic Georgian fighters from Guria and Kvemo Kartli: Khvicha Gobadze (aka Abu Mariam al Jurji), Roin Paksadze, Mamuka Antadze, and Badri Iremadze. The second release, “Ghmerto chemo! Me vichkare shensken, rom iqo chemit kmaqopili” [My God! I hasten towards you so that you would be satisfied with me], was released in February 2016 and featured Chaghalidze, Iremadze, and the Kist fighter Mukhmad Baghakashvili eulogizing three slain Georgian IS fighters. In the second video, Chaghalidze appears in an IS police uniform—elsewhere, on his eponymous WordPress blog, he identified his role in the organization using the Georgian-transliterated Arabic term “idari shurtas”- administrative police.12

Tamaz Chaghalidze in the February 2016 video “My god! I hasten towards you so that you would be satisfied with me”

In April 2016, Chaghalidze announced the formation of “Vilayat Jurjia,” an unofficial IS province in Georgian territory. His announcement, posted initially on his WordPress site, seemed more of a theoretical exercise than a claim of jurisdiction, but the province was connected to a group of Georgian fighters which he claimed had banded together in the lands of the Caliphate.13 This band of Georgians included both ethnic Georgians and a handful of Kists, including the military commander of several jamaats in Latakia province, Levan Tokhosashvili (Al Bara Pankisi), who at the time had recently defected to join IS. After the siege of Raqqa, Chaghalidze went quiet online for several months, restoring several social media accounts in the early spring of 2018. Today, his exact whereabouts are unknown.

Chaghalidze on other Georgian fighters: where are they now?

In a May 2018 post on a Facebook account identifying itself by Chaghalidze’s kunya and using his image as a profile picture, the poster ponders the status of two of the Georgians who joined IS’ ranks: Badri Iremadze (Abu Yahya al-Jurji) and Murman Paichadze (Abu Asia al-Jurji). Family and friendship ties in Georgia connect all three men. At the time of the siege of Mosul, Iremadze and Paichadze were reportedly in the city, participating in IS’ defense. Chaghalidze claims that both Iremadze and Paichadze were likely killed in Mosul. Although not reported in Georgian media or claimed by the Georgian security services, if Chaghalidze’s report is correct, at least 34 fighters from Georgia have been killed fighting for jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.14

Murman Paichadze (left) and Badri Iremadze (right)

Murman Paichadze was by far the oldest Georgian citizen who is publicly confirmed to have traveled to join IS. The 56-year-old imam of the village Kokhta in the Tsalka municipality left his wife, children, and grandchildren behind to go to the Middle East in 2015, posting a lengthy manifesto on a Georgian-language Salafi website justifying his decision. Paichadze is also a “close relative” of Tamaz Chaghalidze.15 Badri Iremadze, a 32-year-old from the village of Nasakirali in Guria, was working in a tea plantation in Turkey when he departed for IS-held territory.16 He is the only Georgian IS fighter on-camera in both official Georgian-language IS videos.

The May 2018 post claims that there is a 99% chance that both Paichadze and Iremadze were martyred but cannot reach a fully conclusive determination. As a caveat, Chaghalidze has a penchant for exaggeration and his post here passes along hearsay from Iremadze and Paichadze’s families regarding their last points of contact with their family in the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the post represents the first mention of these fighters since they last appeared in news stories and media releases from 2015 and 2016. Days before the publication of the post, the Facebook account on which it appears was deleted and replaced by a new profile bearing Chaghalidze’s picture and several pro-IS posts in Georgian. The post in full, translated into English, is below:

[I] asked the relatives of Murman Paichadze and Badri Iremadze if they had any information on them. Here is the answer:

Abu [A]sia (Murman) and Abu Yahya (Badri) were both in the town of Mosul during the time that the kaafirs launched their unjust attack. In the first stage, an army of 115,000 with air support, and then later an army of up to 210,000, fought against 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers of the Caliphate. During this fight, after a 10-month siege, the kaafirs took the town of Mosul.

Murman and Badri fought there, and there is information that most of the people there became shahid (inshaAllah): not only the soldiers of the Caliphate, but tens of thousands of women, children, and the elderly living there all died in the brutality that the American coalition and the Shi’a armies brought to the Muslim people. They used all kinds of armaments, including chemical weapons and gas bombs, against everybody.

From what we can tell about the brothers who left Georgia who were there [in Mosul] at that time with their families, nobody made it out. But it’s not possible to say anything definitively, because there’s no exact data on how many people are imprisoned, or how many successfully made it out of Mosul into the deserts surrounding the town, where approximately 1,000 brothers are located now.

It’s also not possible to say anything about their families. I don’t know anything besides the information disseminated by the kaafirs. In some cases, they publish photos of the people who are captured, but we haven’t seen any of their faces. And I don’t know what the children look like. The kaafirs took some of the children who were left behind in Mosul or found in the basements and ruins. So it’s hard to say anything definitive about the people who left Georgia [for Syria] and determine whether they are alive, in prison, or became shahid.

Of course, when I say things like, “they became shahid inshaAllah,” I’m speaking under the assumption that 99% of those who were alive [prior to the siege of Mosul] are no longer remaining [e.g. dead], and for the remaining 1%, we pray to Allah that they are in the desert with the remaining brothers. We pray that they are not in the prisons of the rafida.

We ask Allah for the best option, which is that they became shahid inshaAllah. My sources found out that when the kaafirs took Mosul, they destroyed the city to rubble.17 Two months prior [to the end of the siege], I talked to Abu Asia (Murman), and at that time he was already wounded. He told me, ‘God is great, this is the will of God. If it’s God’s will for us to be under siege, it will be God’s will for us to either be victorious or become shahid. You know that we are here to attain shahadah, and not to take cities, or for other matters of the material world. May God grant us Paradise if He does not will us to hold this land.’

Regardless of the fact that 99% of them likely became shahid (inshaAllah), I still look for them when someone comes from the desert, and I ask around. There was a case where some wounded people and women came from Mosul to Tel Afar before the city fell, but there too, the Turkmens from the local tribes betrayed the Caliphate and the mujahirs by handing the muhajirs and their families to the Peshmerga and the rafida. But maybe it’s possible that someone was in their ranks.

I don’t exclude any possibility based on what I think about the 1%. Only Allah knows best, and if Allah wills that someone will remain alive, it will be the case, as Allah is almighty and all-powerful, praised be He.

A few things that I can say to their families is that you should pray that Allah is satisfied with them, fear Allah, obey Allah and his religion, and avoid the taghut and their path.”

Bennett Clifford studies violent extremist movements and organizations in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans, and supporters of extremist groups in the United States for George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.


1 “Implementation of Security Council Resolution 2178 (2014) by States Affected by Foreign Terrorist Fighters.” 2015. United Nations Security Council.; “Country Reports on Terrorism 2016.” 2017. United States Department of State.
2 Cecire, Michael. 2016. “Same Sides of Different Coins: Contrasting Militant Activisms between Georgian Fighters in Syria and Ukraine.” Caucasus Survey 4 (September): 282–95.
3 Cecire, Michael. 2017. “Trends in Foreign Fighter Recruitment and Extremism in Adjara, Georgia.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 93 (April): 5–9.
4 Trier, Tom, and Medea Turashvili. 2007. “Resettlement of Ecologically Displaced Persons: Solution of a Prolblem of Creation of a New? Eco-Migration in Georgia 1981-2006.” ECMI Monograph 6. Tbilisi, Georgia: European Centre for Minority Issues.
5 Guria News, 2015. “Rogor gakhda deputatobis kandidati ISIS-is mebrdzoli (How a deputy candidate became an ISIS fighter),” November 19, 2015.
6 Netgazeti, 2014. “ISIS-is kartveli mojahidis motivatsia, problemebi da mukara (The Georgian ISIS jihadist’s motivation, problems, and threats),” October 13, 2014.
7 Ibid.
8 This is a reference to the Georgian Armed Forces, who despite Georgia being a non-NATO member country, frequently participate in NATO missions in several locations worldwide.
9 Chaghalidze is referencing a 2013 Georgian Ministry of Defense special operation in the village of Lapanquri in the Lopota Valley, on Georgia’s border with Dagestan, that resulted in the deaths of several Kists from the Pankisi Valley. Souleimanov, Emil, and Maya Ehrmann. 2013. “The Armed Incident in Georgia’s Lopota Valley and Its Implications for the Security Situation of the South Caucasus.” Connections 12 (3): 118–26.
10 A reference to Georgian Orthodox priests.
11 Tabula, 2015. “SUS-ma ISIS-is kartuli saitebis sakmianobis gamodzieba daits’qo (The Georgian State Security Service opens an investigation into the activities of Georgian-language ISIS websites),” November 16, 2015.
12 Chaghalidze, Tamaz, 2016. “Sakartvelodan khalipatshi (From Georgia to the Caliphate),” ahmad jurji- opitsialuri blogi [Ahmad Jurji- Official Blog].
13 Ibid.
14 Database maintained by the author. For statistics of Georgians killed fighting for jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq from 2012-2017, see Clifford, Bennett. 2018. “Georgian Foreign Fighter Deaths in Syria and Iraq: What Can They Tell Us about Foreign Fighter Mobilization and Recruitment?” Caucasus Survey 6 (1): 62–80.
15 Tsuladze, Zaza. 2015. “Islamuri khalipati sakartvelosats emukreba (The Islamic State Also Threatens Georgia).” Amerikis Khma (Voice of America), November 16, 2015.
16 “Parents of ISIS Militants Who Threatened Georgia Speak Out.” 2015. Georgian Journal. November 26, 2015.
17 The exact Georgian phrase used by Chaghalidze is “they did not leave a rock on top of another rock remaining.”

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this websites administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy researchers to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

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Coming Home: Explaining the Variance in Jihadi Foreign Fighter Returnees Across Western Europe

By Reinier Bergema and Colonel RNLAF (ret.) Peter Wijninga


Little is left of the Islamic State’s territorial control, which, at one point, stretched from Aleppo, Syria to Fallujah, Iraq. The intensification of the 60 nation coalition’s effort to defeat the Islamic State has borne fruit, regaining control over key urban strongholds, such as Raqqa and Mosul. Yet, with the degradation of Islamic State territorial control, European nations may face an influx of returnees. The international intelligence and security community has already indicated that, while the IS’s territorial control may cease to exist, it is highly likely that IS as an underground terrorist organization will continue its jihad against Middle-Eastern and Western targets. Not only do they fear that returning fighters have, while in the trenches, adopted the radical anti-Western ideologies of their jihadi peers, but also that they would return to European soil, heavily traumatized and familiar with a wide range of heavy weaponry and explosives. The fact that the 2014 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the November 2015 Paris attacks, and the 2016 Brussels bombings involved returned operatives appears to confirm this.

With at least 6,800 European nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq1, and estimates suggesting that approximately a quarter – nearly 2,000 – have already returned, the risk is not insignificant. Monitoring these returnees has added significant strain to European intelligence and security services. Closer examination of the available data shows a variance in the number of returnees per country. A (rough) distinction can be made between Northern and Southern European countries (see figure). While countries such as Italy (10.5%, 13/124), France (14.2%, 271/1910), and Spain (14.7%, 30/204) are facing relatively low percentages of returnees, countries such as Denmark (49.6%, 67/135), the United Kingdom (50%; 425/850), and Finland (53.8%; 43/80) have a significantly higher share of jihadi foreign fighters returning. Where does this variance stem from?


First, there is a difference in terms of approach between the mostly Southern European countries on the one hand and the Northern European, especially Scandinavian, countries on the other, with the latter tending to focus much more on the reintegration and rehabilitation of returnees. This soft approach may lower the threshold for disillusioned jihadis that are hoping to return to their home country.2 In Sweden, authorities have experimented with housing, employment, education, and financial support, with the aim to reintegrate returnees back into society.3 The Danish so-called ‘Aarhus model’ aims at disengagement, offering returnees a second chance.4 On the other end of this continuum, the prospects of returning to normal life in countries taking a more repressive approach are significantly limited, given the probability of severe penalties upon their return. For example, France, with a significantly lower share of returnees, takes a much more repressive approach, as it is capable of stripping fighters from French nationality, revoking passports, and/or sentencing them to long jail terms.5 The Pontourny Center, France’s first, and only, deradicalization program closed its doors in August 2017.6 In Italy, administrative deportation of foreign suspects is a common measure: since early 2015, the authorities have deported more than two hundred individuals deemed a threat to national security.7

Second, apart from the perspectives upon their return, there is a distinction to be made in terms of national approaches in facilitating return journeys. Danish foreign fighters wishing to return to their home country are actively repatriated, a tactic that fits its inclusive approach.8 The Netherlands requires its nationals to report to a Dutch embassy or consulate, before they acquire the right to be repatriated.9 This requirement makes it inherently difficult to return, given the limited possibilities of free and safe travel in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, passports and travelling documents were oftentimes confiscated by IS upon arrival in the Caliphate, or sometimes deliberately burned by the fighters themselves, making travel even more difficult. Other countries simply refuse to repatriate its citizens, as they suggest jihadis should be tried or even killed abroad.10

Third, in an attempt to prevent fighters from returning, several countries, including France and the United Kingdom, but also the United States, have formulated a hit list, deliberately targeting their own nationals, aiming to eliminate them and thereby prevent them from returning. Although such extrajudicial killings are obviously far from undisputed, they prefer a dead jihadi over a captured one – a notion that is shared by countries without such a list.11 Although not all countries have formulated such a hit list, it is possible that these countries provide crucial intelligence that may lead to the targeted assassination of its own nationals. The Netherlands, for example, could provide intelligence to its coalition partners, that may contribute, directly or indirectly, to the targeting process.12

Fourth, although there is limited data available on the European level, and the lion share of returnees were part of IS (in Belgium: 64/353; 18.1%), data on the Belgian sample shows that the relative share of returnees who were members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (14/55; 25.5%) seems to be bigger.13 Although there is no similar data available for the Netherlands, approximately twenty jihadis returned before IS became a player in Syria, potentially implying a similar process at work.14 This seems to be in line with the general belief that IS tends to be significantly more repressive when it comes to fighters attempting to leave their ranks.15 (Suspected) defectors are generally considered as spies or traitors, resulting in execution.16 Hence, a possible explanation for the different numbers of returnees may lie in the different policies of the organization the jihadis have joined. This hypothesis requires further exploration.

So far, a higher share of returnees has not necessarily translated into more terrorist attacks. The 2014 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the November 2015 Paris attacks, as well as the 2016 Brussels bombings were conducted by returnees of French and/or Belgian origin. Moreover, the perpetrators of these attacks returned to Europe under the radar of the European intelligence and security community. It is unclear how many jihadis – with or without malicious intent – have returned to Europe beyond the gaze of intelligence and security services. So far, the number of returnees that was involved in terrorist attacks in Europe has been limited. Yet, given their vast number, they represent a significant security challenge for their home countries. Even with the so-called Islamic State collapsed, the conflict in Syria and Iraq has provided a new impetus to global jihadism for years to come.

Reinier Bergema is a Strategic Analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and Colonel RNLAF (ret.) Peter Wijninga is a Subject Matter Expert in Defense & International Security at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies



2 Charles Lister. Returning Foreign Fighters: Criminalization or Reintegration? (Doha: Brookings Institution, August 2015). Retrieved from

3 Lizzie Dearden, “Swedish city to offer returning Isis fighters housing and benefits in reintegration programme”. Independent (October 20, 2016). Retrieved from

4 Alastair Reed & Johanna Pohl. Tackling the Surge of Returning Foreign Fighters (The Hague: International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), July 2017). Retrieved from

5 Piotr Bąkowski & Laura Puccio. Foreign Fighters – Member state responses and EU action [Briefing] (Brussels: European Parliamentary Research Service (EPSR), March 2016). Retrieved from

6 Leela Jacinto. “France’s ‘deradicalisation gravy train’ runs out of steam”. France24 (August 2, 2017). Retrieved from

7 Lorenzo Vidino & Francesco Marone. The Jihadist Threat in Italy: A Primer (Milano: Italian Institute for International Political Studies (IPSI), November 13, 2017). Retrieved from

8 Piotr Bąkowski & Laura Puccio. Foreign Fighters – Member state responses and EU action [Briefing] (Brussels: European Parliamentary Research Service (EPSR), March 2016). Retrieved from

9 National Coordinator for Security & Counterterrorism (NCTV). Voortgangsrapportage integrale aanpak jihadisme (April 6, 2017). Retrieved from

10France refuses to repatriate Brittany’s notorious female Isis jihadist“. The Local (January 4, 2018). Retrieved from

11 Thomas Renard & Rik Coolsaet, Returnees: Who are they, why are they (not) coming back and how should we deal with them? Assessing Policies on Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands (Brussels: Egmont Institute, February 2018). Retrieved from

12 Commissie van Toezicht op de Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdiensten (CTIVD). Toezichtsrapport. Over bijdragen van de MIVD aan targeting (August 3, 2016)

13 Personal communication Pieter Van Ostaeyen & Guy Van Vlierden.

14 National Coordinator Security & Counterterrorism (NCTV), Dreigingsbeeld Terrorisme Nederland (DTN) 35. (February 2014). Retrieved from See also: van Ginkel & Simon Minks, “Addressing the Challenge of Returnees: Threat Perceptions, Policies and Practices in the Netherlands”. In Thomas Renard & Rik Coolsaet (editors), Returnees: Who are they, why are they (not) coming back and how should we deal with them? Assessing Policies on Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands (Brussels: Egmont Institute, February 2018). Retrieved from

15 Peter R. Neumann. Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation & Political Violence (ICSR), September 18, 2015). Retrieved from

16 Ibid.

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this websites administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy researchers to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

“Who Is a Muslim?”: Mubi Mosque Attack, Masjid ad-Ḍirār, and the Historical Attempt at Defining a Muslim in the 19th, 20th and 21st Century Hausaland and Bornu

By Abdulbasit Kassim

Nigeria has once again made the global headlines and this time the place of interest is not Chibok, but the town of Mubi in Adamawa state where Abu Bakr Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram conducted a suicide attack in a mosque in the early hours of the morning prayer on November 21, 2017, killing up to 50 people. Mubi is home to the famous International cattle market “Kasuwa Shanu” and was previously renamed by Abu Bakr Shekau as “Madinat al-Islam” alongside Gwoza in Yobe state which was renamed as “Dar al-Hikmah” in his August 23, 2014, video titled “إعلان الخلافة الإسلامية” (Declaration of the Islamic caliphate). As usual with most commentaries after Boko Haram’s attacks, the larger question about what exactly spurred the incessant attacks on mosques, specifically by Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram, is disregarded in place of superficial analysis and specious judgments that obscure the underlying body of ideational thought that undergird the justification of attacks on Mosques or to use Shekau’s obnoxious parlance the attacks on “Masjid ad-Ḍirār,” a reference to the “Mosque of Dissent” whose destruction was ordered by the Prophet Muhammad after his return from the battle of Tabuk (see Qur`an 9:107-110). The little attention paid to the corpus of books and lectures Shekau delivered on this topic which contributed to the schism in his group with Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur has confounded our understanding of this trend which is due to continue unabated.

Before the next mosque attack, this short piece is an attempt to answer the following questions: What are the underlying ideational thought that undergird Shekau’s justification for mosque attacks? How does Shekau’s understanding of this subject differ from the interpretation of his rivals in the Islamic State’s West African Province, Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur? And finally, how does the theological debate of “who is a Muslim,” a debate whose historical precedent dates back to the 19th century in Hausaland and Bornu contribute to Shekau’s justification of mosque attacks. This short piece is set to provide a panoramic view of the landscape that must be properly understood for insightful judgment on the current trend on mosque attacks in Northeast Nigeria.

In their Arabic letter of protest against Shekau’s leadership written in 2011 to the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Shari`a advisor `Abdallah al-Shinqiti, the future leaders of Ansaru [Abu Muhammad al-Hausawi, Abu Ahmad al-Kishnawi, Khalid al-Barnawi, Abu al-Bara`a al-Nurini al-Akinawi, Abu `Ubayda al-Kanawi, Abu `Abdalla al-Imam, Abu Muslim al-Ibrahimi, Abu Khalid al-Yerawi, Abu Nusayba al-Bushawi, Abu Maryam al-Ya`qub, and Abu `Asim al-Hasani] raised the first objection against Shekau’s excessive use of takfīr against other Muslims. In the letter, they wrote: “al-Shekawi uses takfīr for all those who participate in elections disregarding the principles and rules of takfīr. He makes things worse by not stopping at this point, but adding to this the permissibility of bloodshed and confiscation of possessions as clearly explained at the beginning of this letter as if he was a graduate from the school of Antar al-Zouabri (the leader of the Algerian group, GIA).”

Shekau is not the first person to be accused of using excessive takfīr against other Muslims. The genealogy of the doctrine of takfīr in Hausaland and Bornu can be traced to Shaykh Jibril `Umar, one of the teachers of Shaykh `Uthmān Ibn Fūdī who was also the first to pledge allegiance to him before the Jihad in 1804. In his book “نصائح الأمة المحمدية لبيان الفرق الشيطانية التى ظهرت في بلادنا السودانية,” after praising his Shaykh and warning against having bad thoughts about him, Shaykh Ibn Fūdī went further to exculpate his teacher from the charges of being a Khawarij: “It may be that he had an explanation for this which we are unaware of because he was a great sea of knowledge. O Brethren! Do not think ill of this great Shaykh, I do not know if we would have been guided to the way of the Sunna and the quelling of evil practices had it not been started by this Shaykh. For it was him who began to destroy evil practices in this Sudan land of ours and it is for us to complete that works.”

Although Shaykh Ibn Fūdī respectfully declared that his teacher erred in his declaration of takfīr on Muslims who engaged in grave sins (kabā`ir) or indulge in local customs that do not contravene the dictates of Islam, he would later apply a more orthodox interpretation that limit takfīr to major polytheism (Shirk al-Akbar) to the Hausa rulers whom he accused of practicing syncretism and also on the Borno Muslim rulers whom he argued allied themselves with the Hausa rulers. In his book “نجم الإخوان يهتدون به بإذن الله في أمور الزمان,” Shaykh Ibn Fūdī stated the three reasons for fighting the ruler of Kanem Borno and his followers: 1. their partial acceptance of Islam; 2. their hostility towards those who embrace Islam; and 3. their support and assistance to infidels (Hausa rulers) fighting against the Muslims: “The reason we considered the ruler of Bornu and his follower as unbelievers is because of their partial acceptance of Islam. There is no doubt that these people are overtly infidels. But with regards to those who embraced Islam among them, we still declared them to be infidels and this is similar to what al-Maghilī said to Sonni `Ali and his followers in his books `Ajwibat al-Maghilī `an asilat al-Amin al-Hajj Muhammad Askiya’ and Miṣbahu al-arwāh fī usūl al falāh’.”

Takfīr does not only excommunicate a Muslim from Islam, it also makes permissible the shedding of the blood of a Muslim accused of unbelief even before the killing of an original infidel (Kafir al-asl). For a detailed discussion of the concept of Takfīr and how it applies to the Jihadis read Nelly Lahoud’s book “The Jihadis Path to Self-Destruction”. Most of the books of Shaykh Ibn Fūdī where the discourses of takfīr were discussed are frequently cited in the books authored by Shekau to justify his declaration of takfīr on present-day Nigerian leaders ruling by the secular constitution and also on Muslims who support democracy and “man-made legislation.” To be fair and objective, even though the historical periods are different, the charges leveled against the Hausa rulers and the present-day Nigerian rulers are analogous, the charges of unbelief (Kufr) for ruling by other than the Shari`a. But even with his expansive list of what constitutes major polytheism including voting in elections and condoning democracy, Shekau did not stop at the declaration of takfīr alone, he further make permissible attacks on those who flee from his caliphate for the Nigerian state, which he described as “Dar al-Kufr” (most attacks on IDP camps are carried out by Shekau’s faction) and he also legalized attacks on mosques attended by those whom he declared as infidels under the guise of “Masjid ad-Ḍirār” i.e. in his words, the mosques were not built for the purpose of piety but for the purpose of combining the worship of God with the polytheism of calling for the support of democracy, secular constitution and man-made legislation all of which according to him constitute unbelief (Kufr).

Before explaining how Shekau arrived at his reasoning, it is important to explore the second epoch of contestation over the doctrine of takfīr which took place in the post-colonial period mainly between the Izalas and the Sufis of the Tijaniyya order. In his book “العقيدة الصحيحة بموافقة الشريعة”, Shaykh Abubakar Gumi declared a subtle takfīr on the Sufi leaders whom he compared to the Jews and Christians who knew the truth of Islam but refused to follow it. Shaykh Gumi went further to declare that the use of Ṣalāt al-Fātiḥ excommunicates the Sufis from Islam. In his response to the polemic of Shaykh Gumi and his critic from the Tijaniyya order, Ibrahim b. Sidi Muhammad b. Muhammad Salma who accused him of secretly supporting the Izalas, Shaykh Ibrahim Saleh wrote the two books “التكفير اخطر بدعة تهدد الوحدة بين المسلمين في نيجيريا” and “المغير على شبهات أهل الأهواء وأكاذيب المنكر على كتاب التكفير.” In the first book, Shaykh Saleh wrote a rejoinder to Shaykh Gumi’s subtle takfīr on the Sufi leaders specifically his notion that members of the Tijanniya order revere Ṣalāt al-Fātiḥ more than the Qur`an which he countered by emphasizing that Shaykh Ahmad Tijani never sanction such comparison. The second book was written in defense of Sufi beliefs and a re-examination of some doctrines of the Tijanniya order. At the second epoch, the takfīr debate was mainly restricted to devotional acts of worship and there was little or no connection of the debate to the issue of politics and governance like the time of Ibn Fūdī. This restriction will radically change in the third epoch.

The takfīr debate was furthered in the third epoch by new actors, the Saudi returnees who furthered the arguments of the Izala clerics but with a more refined Saudi-influenced theology and the firebrand students who were mostly the students of the Saudi returnees and who refused to abide by the limitation set forth by the Saudi returnees. According to the firebrand students whose leading figure was Muhammad Yusuf, the takfīr debate should not be restricted only to the polemics against the Sufi clerics but it should also be extended to the discourse of politics and governance like the period of Ibn Fūdī. In his Markaz Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad Yusuf and his followers pitched their discourse of takfīr on the political rulers who govern by qawānīn wad`iyyah (man-made laws) and he argued that their Kufr is not different from the Kufr of the Sufi leaders, therefore if the Salafi establishment can condemn the Sufi leaders as infidels, they must do the same for the political rulers. While often citing the book of Imam Sharastani titled “الملل والنحل,” Yusuf convincingly refuted the Kharijites appellation penned on his group. In his debate with Mallam Isa Ali Pantami on June 25, 2006, Yusuf laid out his understanding of takfīr:

“All the followers of Sunna have reached a consensus on the principle of declaring a Muslim as an infidel. Anything that constitutes unbelief, if an unbeliever does it; he is already an unbeliever, no query. He does not have to do it to become an unbeliever. But if a person is a practicing Muslim and he performs the actions of unbelief, then we need to follow the principles [of apostasy]. First and foremost, it should be that the person does not have an interpretation that he hides behind, whether it is a verse or ḥadīth, even if it is weak, as long as he does not know it is weak. Second, it should be clear that he does not have doubt that makes him see his action as good and there is no reason to eliminate that doubt. Third, we also need to be clear that he received no message at all notifying him that his action is wrong. Fourth, there is also the case of doubt, misinterpretation, and coercion.”

In order to prevent the political rulers from the excuse of ignorance (al-`udhr bi-l-jahl), Yusuf declined the declaration of Jihad when Muhammad Ali gave the green light during the Kannama episode, a decision that led to the declaration of takfīr on him. He spent the years after he returned from exile in 2004 establishing what he called “iqāmat al-ḥujja” (establishing of the evidence) on the political rulers, a condition he viewed as necessary before the declaration of jihad. In his lecture on the history of Muslims, Yusuf said:

“We establish iqāmat al-ḥujja for them (Political rulers) but you might not know since you have never gone to the presence of the Divisional Police Officer to discuss this issue. On the other hand, I have been called several times to their office. There was a time I was invited by the Director-General of the State Security Service—look at Ibrahim and others were the ones who escorted me. I went to their office and we sat with him to discuss the mission of our preaching towards Islamic reform. […] Anyone about whom we are certain to have established evidence upon is an apostate from Islam. If it is the ṭāghūt, you should present evidence to him, but once you present your evidence it is over.”

In his last lecture “Open Letter to the Nigerian Government” delivered on June 12, 2009, Yusuf displayed satisfaction with the reaction of his followers and their level of preparedness for the stakes of jihad ahead. He said:

“Glory be to God—this is a lesson to us. We had initially thought that our brothers have not reached this stage, but I can confirm they have reached it. When I approached the brothers, I asked each of them when they were shooting where were you? One of them replied me: “I was here, I took this brother and that brother.” I asked him: “Did the brothers flee?” He replied me that no, rather than fleeing they were advancing towards them [the security forces]. You never know when brothers have reached this level except in a state of oppression. This is a lesson and a gift from God. It is a sign of progress.”

After the death of Yusuf, Shekau took the takfīr debate further. This time he extended it beyond the political rulers ruling with man-made laws to the general populace who show support for the political rulers, vote during the elections, and support democracy. Prior to the group’s territorial control in Northeast Nigeria, Shekau’s beliefs were fiercely debated at the theoretical level by other members of his group, a debate that led to the formation of Ansaru through a video debut issued on June 2, 2012, after the letter of protest was sent to the two Shari’a advisors of AQIM `Abdallah al-Shinqiti and Abu Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi. However, after the declaration of a caliphate in 2014, Shekau took his interpretation of takfīr from the theoretical level to the practical level. His excesses were managed until his reign of leadership was substituted by the Islamic State with the son of Muhammad Yusuf, Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi. The back and forth exchanges which spurred the internal schisms in the group exploded when the two-part audio lecture of Mamman Nur titled “Exposé: An Open Letter to Abubakar Shekau” was uploaded online by Saminu, a crony of Nur and al-Barnawi. In the lecture, Nur said:

“According to his (Shekau’s) ideology, whoever is not with him are unbelievers and shedding their blood is permissible. We do not agree with such an interpretation and never have we understood Islam in that way. I hope it is understood. Just like that they appropriate their property; they also find and kill little children. In some cases, they will find the yam-sellers in the towns and detonate bombs amongst them. We are not bothered by the yam-sellers. Rather, we are bothered with killing the ṭāghūt for now. When we finish with the ṭāghūt, the yam-sellers will even fetch water for you. O Shekau! You don’t have to kill them. Likewise, look at the way they are planting explosives and bombing the people even in the mosques! Look at the churches [as targets]! Look at the [military] barracks! This is a waste of God’s property because we are not the ones who bought those explosives with our money. That is God’s property, and He will ask us how it was utilized. God will ask you because we have disassociated ourselves from your actions unless you repent. Today, if you say you repent and withdraw from those obnoxious misunderstandings, we will come back and say: “Shekau, we are with you, and you are our leader.” Before now you were a leader, so do not start calling us rebels. No, you are indeed the rebel, because you refuse to follow the instruction of your leaders in Iraq [ISIS].”

In a lecture titled “السكنى في دار الكفر” (Living in the land of unbelief), Shekau responded to Nur’s criticism. He said:

“We believe that it is impossible for a Muslim to reside in the unbelievers’ land without the public manifestation of his religion, and still claim to be a Muslim. This is not the practice of the Prophet [Muhammad]. Likewise, it is impossible for a Muslim who has not fought against an illegitimate ruler (ṭāghūt), who rules by means of a constitution, to claim to be a Muslim or for him to not be labeled an unbeliever. This is also not possible. These are the type of creeds they wrote to us with the claim that they emanated from the caliphate [Islamic State]. They said I should agree and work with these creeds because that is how the caliphate is governed. Afterwards, I said that these beliefs, if I did not hear them directly from the spokesman of the caliphate, I will not accept them as truth nor will I agree to them or work with them. Whoever accepts these beliefs has committed apostasy (ridda). This is my creed. Let me explain clearly from now: women, men, and my brothers, it is the Qur’ān I will follow.”

Shekau reiterated the same claim in his two authored books “هل_يعذر_بالجهل_في_الشرك_الأكبر” and “معنى الإسلام وضده والطاغوت,” which was published by Maktaba Wādi`u al-Bayan. It is only by understanding these historical attempts at defining a Muslim in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century Hausaland and Bornu that we will understand the current trends of mosque attacks in Northeast Nigeria. According to Shekau, the attacks are legitimate because it is an attack against infidels in “Masjid ad-Ḍirār” i.e. the mosques built not for the purpose of piety but for the purpose of combining the worship of God with the polytheism of calling for the support of democracy, secular constitution, and man-made legislation all of which according to him constitute unbelief (Kufr). Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur do not subscribe to this understanding of Shekau. In a recent two-part audio lecture titled “سلسلة علمية. في بيان مسائل منهجية,” which was uploaded on October 21, 2017, Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi decried Shekau’s extreme interpretation of takfīr. As long as Shekau holds to his interpretation, mosque attacks and attacks on IDP camps will continue as the new norm of this insurgency.

This is how we got here. And everything we see today is a product of history.

Abdulbasit Kassim is a Ph.D. student on African Studies, Islam, and International Relations in the Department of Religion at Rice University

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this websites administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy researchers to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Hymnal Propaganda: A Closer Look at ‘Clanging of the Swords’

Nashīds are a prime example of the Islamic State’s efforts to combine old and new rhetorical features to promote and legitimize its violent ends

By Alexander Schinis

Part of the Islamic State’s (IS) claim to fame is its high-value media productions. Some of its most popular productions are its hymns, or anashīd, which have spread around the world in the past years. The hymns serve as a rallying cry to their listeners, a call-to-arms on behalf of the terror group’s military goals. More than just overt calls for war, though, anashīd serve the group as foundational and legitimizing texts. Coded within the works of IS-produced anashīd are clues about its efforts to cast itself as the leader of global jihad.

This article will examine some of the structural features of one of IS’s most popular anashīd. In addition to these features, an assessment of the martial lyrical content of the nashīd will follow. Analyzing these features together will reveal some of IS’s many strategies in legitimizing itself as heir to leadership over the Islamic ummah.

What is a nashīd?

A nashīd (plural: anashīd) is a vocalized chant, frequently polyphonic and often without any instrumentation. There is significant variation across genres of anashīd. The work of Behnam Said includes some of the most comprehensive research into the history and cultural relevance of these types of works (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 2012).

The focus here is on the public-facing anashīd produced by IS. The qualities of these anashīd place the works somewhere between an exultant battle hymn and self-righteous national anthem.

One of IS’s most well-known anashīd, called Clanging of the Swords,” offers a compelling example of what such a nashīd looks and sounds like. This nashīd was retrieved from Aymenn al-Tamimi offers one version of the English translation, linked here. Featuring the vocals of the munshid Abu Yaser, the nashīd made its debut in the video propaganda production of the same name in the summer of 2014.

Repetition in the nashīd

It will not take long for the listener to recognize how repetitive “Clanging of the Swords” is. Repetition is an integral part of many of IS’s anashīd. However, this should not be read as a lack of creativity on the part of their creators. Instead, the nashīd presents itself as a medium that enjoys a strong relationship with memory. Charles Hirschkind, in a study of sermons and the practice of “ethical listening” in Egypt, found that sermons could be easily memorizable because of their use of repetition (Columbia University Press, 2006). He points to Marcel Jousse’s theory of gesture and memory, which states that gestures, such as aural patterns, are predisposed to easy memorization. The nashīd’s use of repetition is likely a strategy used by IS to facilitate their memorization by its intended audience.

Repetition in “Clanging of the Swords” appears on a few levels. The first is its repetition of the chorus, made up of four lines. The hymn repeats this chorus of four lines seven times – sometimes back-to-back – in the period of the hymn’s approximately three minute run time.

The second level of repetition in the anthem appears in an echo-like effect for certain lines, immediately after their utterance. The hymn has three discrete stanzas, all of which demonstrate this pattern, and the last line of each stanza is repeated. Taking into account the repetition of its chorus, in this scheme, 34 lines of verse are repeated at least once. Of the hymn’s total of 40 lines, only six lines do not find repetition in the hymn. This makes the non-repeated verses outliers in the verse repetition scheme of the nashīd.

The third level of repetition in “Clanging of the Swords” is the reiteration of a number of themes and words. This is partly a function of the two tiers of repetition noted above. Across the chorus and stanzas there are specific words that appear several times. If the subject of the hymn is the listener, the object is “the enemy.” The anthem invokes the word “enemy” or “enemies” (in Arabic, عدو \ أعداء) “oppressors” (in Arabic, الطغاة) or “aggressors” more than any other object in the work. Other recurring words and phrases that appear across lines and stanzas are ideas of a righteous “path,” the notion of “sacrifice,” and references to “God.”

The extensive and multi-layered use of repetition, when taking into account the theories of Hirshkind and Jousse, serves the political aims of IS’s cultural productions by lending the works to quick memorization by the listener.

Monorhyme in the nashīd

Structural repetition makes this and other anashīd catchy and quick to commit to memory, but other features lend the nashīd deeper significance to certain audiences. One such feature in “Clanging of the Swords” is the use of monorhyme, i.e., the rhyming of each line of verse with all other lines.

Each line of the hymn is made up of two hemistichs, and in the original Arabic of the hymn, the last vocalization of each line’s second hemistich rhymes with an “a” sound. This is achieved with a few different schemes. One includes rhyming different letters with similar sounds. This is seen in the chorus, where the use of the taa’ marbuta (ة) in the words life (الحياة) and tyranny (الطغاة) are made to rhyme with the alif maqsura (ى) of the word echo (الصدى).

Elsewhere, a different strategy is to emphasize the vocalization of the “a” sound where it is found close to the end of a word, even if it is not the last letter. The word foreheads (جباه) terminates in a soft “h” sound; however, as a strategy to uphold the rhyming scheme, the vocalists omit the sound of the “h” altogether to ensure it is in keeping with the monorhyme.

Clanging of the Swords” is significant in its inclusion of monorhyme because it is an appeal to the poetic form of the qasīda. An educated Arabic-speaking audience might recognize the rhyming scheme; this is the creators’ intention. Bernard Haykel and Robyn Creswell, writing for The New Yorker, note that the use of classical Arabic forms, patterns, and meters in poetry is one way the IS jihadists attempt to co-opt the “special authority” that comes with the figure of the poet in Arabic literature. (The New Yorker, 2015).

This effort evidently extends past the genre of traditional Arabic poetry into the group’s corpus of anashīd.  The inclusion of monorhyme in “Clanging of the Swords” demonstrates that the authors of the nashīd understand the weight that these prosodic forms carry for educated Arabic speakers — and strive for the mantle of authority that comes with such knowledge.

Video Game Symbology

Some anashīd come paired with video productions and “Clanging of the Swords” is one such nashīd. The associated video, released in the summer of 2014, runs for over an hour and features this nashīd as background audio several times.

Two scenes stand out on account of their editing and framing. In both, a filmographer captures footage of a man sitting guard duty. The video then overlays a media effect similar to those seen in the popular video game franchise “Call of Duty,” superimposing the crosshairs of a sniper rifle over the guard. Gun fire from the direction of the camera subsequently kills the man in both cases, and “Clanging of the Swords” plays in the background all the while.

The footage is an example of the group’s efforts to incorporate new media forms like video games into its propaganda productions. Marcus Schulzke demonstrated how other Islamist groups used video games as a means to frame the narrative of the conflicts in which they were engaged. He notes that on a practical level, video game imagery “serves in [the war of ideas] both to intimidate opponents and to mobilize supporters” (Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 2014).  

The conceptual framework of a videogame also stands as a familiar medium for a younger audience. It invites this audience to imagine themselves as a participant in the conflict, using the parallel between the active role of playing as a video game’s protagonist. The value of ISIS using this video game effect is likely an effort to match the outcomes that Schulzke highlights, possibly for the benefit of recruiting younger viewers.

Violence and the nashīd

Amid these rhetorical strategies sits the lyrical content of the nashīd. The lyrics of the nashīd reify the violence that made the Caliphate’s foundation possible. The primary function of IS’s invocation of violence is political – that is, its aims are not simply to make a statement, but rather to enforce and expand the area control bounded by the Caliphate.

The nashīd speaks to its audience, calling to the listener as a “brother” and speaking of “us” in the collective throughout. This call to community glorifies the battles that IS carries out serves to invite the listener to picture themselves in that same role, undertaking those same deeds, and earning for themselves that same glory. Its presumed listeners, speakers of Arabic, can join what the text portrays as a historic event, if only they make the sacrifices noted therein and join the Islamic State.

In spite of the images seen and described in mainstream media sources, such as immolating its captives alive or throwing its victims off of rooftops, the nashīd reflects a consensus within the terror group about what can be categorized as defensive violence. One need not look far back into IS’s history to find works explaining acts of brutal violence as necessary.

We can trace IS’s intellectual history and its relationship with violence to the the Al Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji. Naji, in his treatise “The Management of Savagery,” links the need for twisted acts of violence to the time of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, in which the ummah was only just being conceived. “They knew the effect of rough violence in times of need,” writes Abu Bakr Naji, citing the value of brutalizing one’s enemies as a deterrent and a demoralizing strategy (Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, May 2006).  At the time of his writing in 2004, he saw a grim period for the jihadist movement: “We are now in circumstances […] like that of which the believers faced in the beginning of jihad [in the time of the Prophet].”

It goes without saying that this interpretation of history is aberrant in modern society, and finds its home only in terror groups as fringe as IS. Resisting the aggressors, laying tyranny low, and walking the path of jihad in defiance are the highlighted examples of righteousness in violence in this nashīd. More than a heavy-hearted defensive response, though, “Clanging of the Swords” paints violence as a glorious means for necessary change.


The nashīd Clanging of the Swords” exemplifies a number of strategies that make it a complex text, serving not only as motivational work, but also as a legitimizing one. By capitalizing on the strategies discussed herein, this and other IS anashīd seek to bolster the marital aspirations of the terror group. Anashīd that use repetition are quick to memorize. They can call on tropes that invoke a sense of community for the listener. They can employ the “ennobling mantle” of Arabic poetry. These and other strategies, when paired with lyrics aggrandizing violence, help to legitimize the acts of violence for which IS is so infamous.

IS’s other anashīd further exemplify features that qualify them as noteworthy cultural artifacts. These anashīd, as well as other texts, merit our attention and deconstruction. By digging deeper into the texts produced by the group, we can determine other modes by which it attempts to create legitimacy for itself and its methods.

Alexander Schinis is a freelance writer and analyst. He holds a Master’s degree from New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies.

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

The Fitna in Deraa and the Islamic State Angle

By Aymenn al-Tamimi

International attention has justifiably focused on the recent Islamic State [IS] attacks in Brussels, but at the same time within Syria the most intense round of infighting among rebel factions in the southern province of Deraa has broken out. This fighting is said to be tied to the existence of IS cells and affiliates in Deraa, though IS itself has not said anything about the events on its official media channels, and to date there is no wilayat Deraa (‘Deraa province’) declared in the area. So who are the groups involved? And how far are they connected to IS if at all?

The most prominent aspect of the infighting is a continuation of the war in the southwest corner of the province between Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade- LSY) and Syrian al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which is a leading player along with Ahrar al-Sham in a southern Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in imitation of the successful rebel alliance that expelled the Assad regime from Idlib province in spring 2015. The war itself traces back to clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra and LSY in December 2014 on the grounds that the latter had links with IS.

Though there was widespread skepticism of that notion at the time, it is apparent from LSY’s own media output, discourse and actions since the initial clashes that it has open affinity with IS. Even so, LSY continues to deny in its own statements that it has links with IS, and on this basis many reports still characterize LSY as just pro-IS and/or a ‘wannabe.’ However, it is most likely that the LSY denials are encouraged by IS for fear of jeopardizing the project of building links and influence in Deraa. The reality is that LSY’s connections began around the summer of 2014, after the MOC operations command in Amman suspended support for LSY and IS announced its Caliphate. These first links were established online and through visits to IS territory.

A key figure in these initial interactions was the LSY Shari’i official Abu Muhammad al-Masalama, a veteran of the Afghan jihad who returned to southern Syria and eventually joined LSY. He was assassinated in November 2014. If one understands his role in establishing the connections between LSY and IS, it becomes clearer why Step News Agency described him in an obituary as “an important leader among the supporters of the Dawla organization in Deraa.”

More recently- and relevant to the latest developments- LSY announced the surprise appointment of a Saudi as its new amir: Abu Abdullah al-Madani. The move was unusual because the Deraa environment is much less welcoming than the north of Syria for muhajireen, partly because of local hostility but also because of the watchful eye of Jordanian intelligence and tight border controls.  In keeping with the public denial of an IS connection, LSY framed the appointment of Madani as the owing of allegiance to him. However, he was actually sent by IS on account of the poor administrative skills of Abu Obeida Qahtan: a Palestinian-Syrian veteran of the Afghan jihad who was among the founders of LSY and succeeded the original leader al-Khal following his assassination in November 2015. The reshuffling of the leadership can perhaps be tied to plans for the new offensive LSY has launched, capturing the localities of Tasil and Sahm al-Jowlan from Jabhat al-Nusra and the rebels.

A group cooperating with LSY in the latest round of fighting is Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (Islamic Muthanna Movement- HMI). Whereas LSY, despite al-Khal’s radical background, was initially founded as an FSA-brand group, HMI was founded from the outset in 2012 as a Salafi jihadi group, headed by former Sednaya detainee Aamer Ayyub al-Masalama. That said, aware of local sensitivities and wishing to build popular support, HMI has always maintained a policy of rejecting muhajireen.

HMI is suspected by many of having links with IS- and for this reason has been on the radar of Israeli intelligence- but one does not see the open display of affinity that comes out in LSY. What may be considered as relevant evidence does not necessarily point one way or another. For example, a statement was issued by HMI in spring 2015 on the subject of IS: while HMI made clear it does not accept IS’ Caliphate declaration, the group praised IS for having fought “the states of kufr [disbelief] and their aides from the apostates,” and took a stance of neutrality on the fighting between IS and other factions, praying for an end to fitna. In addition, critics of HMI see IS affinities in its tactics of assassinations of rivals and running of secret prisons, which culminated in open clashes with a number of FSA Southern Front factions in January 2016, contributing to the fall of Sheikh Maskeen to the regime. HMI also rejects the authority of the Dar al-‘Adl, which is the main judicial authority among southern rebels, and has not participated with Jabhat al-Nusra and southern Jaysh al-Fatah in the war on LSY.

On the other hand, the group issued an internal directive in 2015 warning against reckless takfiri behaviour and was actually one of the first to clash with LSY in summer 2014 as LSY began establishing links with IS. Also, there is a degree of localization as regards HMI’s involvement in the latest fighting. For example, there are no signs of clashes between HMI and other rebels in Deraa al-Balad, the southern half of the provincial capital. The local outlet Naba’ media told me that this is because “members of al-Muthanna in the city have announced that they are only obligated to fight the regime.” As for the rejection of the Dar al-‘Adl, under which HMI initially worked but withdrew about a year ago, it should also be noted that Jabhat al-Nusra similarly rejects the body for its use of the Unified Arab Code, which combines civil and Shari’a law as opposed to jihadist groups’ vision of rule solely by God’s law.

Analytically, it is perhaps most appropriate to see a HMI as similar to Jund al-Aqsa, whose leadership rejects the IS Caliphate but insists one can only fight IS in strict self-defence, while some of its members sympathise with IS and have even defected. That said, the analogy is not exact because Jund al-Aqsa has foreign members in its ranks. Like Jund al-Aqsa, HMI’s approach as regards to dealing with rivals and implementing Shari’a should be seen as more hardline than that of Jabhat al-Nusra.  A pro-LSY source from the Yarmouk Valley in southwest Deraa described to me the stance of HMI on IS in this way: “The amirs of Harakat al-Muthanna are totally removed from the manhaj of the Dawla [Islamic State]. But there are some members who support the Dawla and adopt its manhaj…the problem is in the current amirs and Shari’i officials for Harakat al-Muthanna.” Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi, whose allegiance is to IS but has served as LSY’s deputy Hisba amir, said that the cooperation with HMI in the current fighting is a new thing, and that some Shari’i officials within HMI had previously defected to IS and went to Raqqa and al-Sham (i.e. IS’ formal territories in Wilayat Dimashq). From my own interactions with HMI members, it is clear to me they support a Caliphate project- not necessarily that of IS- but maintain an anti-fitna stance with regards to IS.

On this reading, one can perhaps interpret the cooperation with LSY, which has most notably involved blowing up bridges to prevent Jabhat al-Nusra and the rebels from reinforcing lines, as local opportunism. Indeed, some days before the latest clashes, an unofficial Telegram account in HMI’s name announced the establishment of a Shari’i court in the western region of Deraa province. Could one perhaps see a fragmenting of HMI along regional lines within Deraa in the near future? The possibility should not be discounted. In this context, it seems possible that LSY will try to absorb the western Deraa HMI into its ranks, just as it absorbed the remnants of the Jaysh al-Jihad coalition in Quneitra that was destroyed by rebels last year on accusations of links with IS.

In fact, fragmentation is precisely what has happened to another group suspected of IS loyalties: Jama’at Bayt al-Maqdis al-Islamiya (The Islamic Bayt al-Maqdis Group- JBMI). Contrary to common image, JBMI is not a Palestinian group (an idea based on the Bayt al-Maqdis reference- ‘Holy House/Jerusalem’), but primarily draws on Syrians from Deraa and Quneitra with some muhajireen from Jordan, while its leadership base is in the Deraa locality of Jasim. Suspicions of IS links have primarily pointed to the group’s use of a flag similar to that of IS (the design is identical, except for JMBI’s name inscribed on the bottom). This line of evidence by itself is insufficient to demonstrate an IS link. That said, the group undoubtedly had at least some IS sympathisers in its ranks, one of the reasons for its recent fragmentation. Besides not coming to the aid of LSY or HMI in the latest fighting, around a month ago JBMI joined an operations room with a number of FSA factions, including Jaysh al-Yarmouk, Fallujah Hawran Division and Farqat Usud al-Sunna. According to a defector from JBMI who joined LSY, “When they formed the room we in Quneitra gave them a deadline of days to disavow this, but they rejected because of the Shari’i official Abu Omar al-Shami’s involvement in the leadership. So after that we decided to disavow the group.” Most of the defectors, according to this source, did not join LSY but have chosen instead to “sit in their homes,” and now only 60-70 members remain in JBMI.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that one of the first incidents in the latest round of fighting took place in the Deraa town of Inkhil. This involved the dismantling of an IS cell that was outwardly a group called Ansar al-Aqsa (Supporters of al-Aqsa). According to a source from the al-Furqan institute (an educational group) in Inkhil, the group was “an Islamic formation, the majority of whom had left Nusra and were saying that they were independent, but in the end it was established that they were connected with the [IS] organization.” The reason for leaving Jabhat al-Nusra in the first place was apparently because they rejected fighting LSY. In any case, the source added that the main factions in the town- the FSA Hamza Division and Mujahideen of Hawran Brigades- acted with assistance from Jabhat al-Nusra against the group and expelled it from the town. As for HMI, the source said it only has a small presence in Inkhil not exceeding 15 members. Pointing towards a worsening situation, a pro-IS post in which the media director for LSY was tagged on Facebook portrayed the Inkhil events as just the beginning for the rebel forces.

Looking forward, more rebel factions are now getting involved in the fight against the groups deemed to be IS cells within Deraa, but it is questionable how far they will be able to reverse LSY’s recent gains. Two things are likely though. First, there are likely to be further prominent casualties on both sides, with LSY, HMI and Jabhat al-Nusra each having lost at least one major military commander in the latest fighting. Second, IS itself will only officially announce a presence in Deraa/Quneitra if LSY can succeed in establishing a contiguous territorial connection with IS, and in that regard these southern holdings will likely be integrated into Wilayat Dimashq. In short, it is evident that IS is opening a much more active southern front against the rebels as it has otherwise failed to gain decisive ground in Syria for a many months now.

As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

From Al-Shabab to the Islamic State: The Bay‘a of ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min and Its Implications

By Christopher Anzalone

Note: These are not definitive conclusions but initial thoughts.


On October 22 a poor quality mp3 recording was posted online of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min pledging allegiance (bay‘a) to the amir of the Islamic State (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and thus switching his allegiance from the Somali jihadi-insurgent group Al-Shabab to IS.  Mu’min, a longtime Al-Shabab preacher, ideologue, and leader, created a stir among jihadis and jihadi supporters online, particularly those supportive of IS, as well as analysts.  There is no doubt that his defection from Al-Shabab to IS is of major symbolic importance in the competition between Al-Qa‘ida Central (AQC) and its regional affiliates and IS, which has succeeded in attracting pledges of allegiance from a host of groups, from Jama‘at Ahl al-Sunna li-l-Da‘wat wa-l-Jihad (“Boko Haram”) in Nigeria and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Sinai to a faction of the former unified Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan umbrella led by Hafiz Sa‘id Khan, the former TTP amir of the Orakzai tribal agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas.  It is important, however, to keep Mu’min’s defection with a group of rank-and-file fighters from Al-Shabab’s Puntland branch in and around the Golis mountain range in perspective and not to exaggerate its immediate impact.  In this article, which is based on two long series of tweets posted a few days ago (see here and here), the symbolic importance of Mu’min’s bay‘a to al-Baghdadi and its potential impact will be examined in order to provide some additional context to the preacher’s role within Al-Shabab and shed more light on why his departure from its ranks is significant.

Mu’min, a onetime resident of London, returned to Somalia in mid-2010 and by the summer of 2011 had publicly emerged as a player within Al-Shabab, making great use of his status as a religious scholar (‘alim) and skilled preacher in giving the jihadi-rebel group an added aura of “religious” authenticity and support.  In the summer of 2011, he played an integral role in the insurgents’ outreach to local communities and clan elders at a time when Al-Shabab was facing a renewed African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali federal government offensive.  Mu’min and other Al-Shabab officials, including the then-Shabab governor of the Banaadir region, Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, met with local community leaders, merchants, religious scholars (‘ulama), and poets in neighborhoods around Mogadishu in an attempt to win their support against AMISOM and the Somali government.  Mu’min was particularly active in making pitches to other ‘ulama in order to win their support.  In May 2011, Mu’min was one of the Al-Shabab officials chosen to speak at the group’s official memorial conference and ceremony for the late AQC amir Usama bin Laden.  Mu’min also was a featured speaker in February 2012 at another major Al-Shabab event, its official celebration in Lafoole in the Lower Shabelle region of the formalization of its affiliation with AQC.  


The preacher’s symbolic importance also comes from the promotion previously by Al-Shabab and its media apparatus of his lectures, including a lengthy series of lectures of his oral tafsir of the Qur’an, featured roles in a series of official propaganda films, and the promotion of his recorded remarks and statements on its radio stations.  In 2012, Mu’min relocated to Puntland where he worked to further Al-Shabab’s goals of expanding in that region.  As part of this campaign, he continued to record interviews and statements that were broadcast on Al-Shabab’s terrestrial radio stations and in 2015 he was featured in a series of official films produced by the group’s Al-Kata’ib Media Foundation.  His most recent appearances were in a series of three Ramadan lectures filmed in the Golis Mountains released in July.  Up until mid-September, he was still participating in Al-Shabab’s media operations campaign.

The exact number of rank-and-file fighters from Al-Shabab’s Puntland branch who left with Mu’min remains unknown with any certainty.  The majority of initial reports placed the number at being between 20 and 25, though other sources claimed that a much higher number of fighters, perhaps the majority of the 300 or so strong Puntland branch, had also defected with the preacher.  Although the number is important, and a higher number of defections would more greatly affect Al-Shabab logistically since it is suffering from defections of fighters who have taken advantage of offers of amnesty from the Somali government, Mu’min’s defection is still a symbolic blow to the group regardless of the exact number.  This challenge, however, while important, is not necessarily insurmountable as of this time.


Recent signs suggest that the central Al-Shabab leadership, including regional governors, are disposed to remaining loyal to AQC amir Ayman al-Zawahiri, though they have clearly been struggling for some time about how to react to the growing popularity of IS.  The late amir of Al-Shabab, Ahmed Godane, uneasily navigated this question and ultimately decided to remain loyal to al-Zawahiri.  His successor, Ahmad “Abu ‘Ubayda” ‘Umar, also quickly reaffirmed the group’s loyalty to the AQC chief upon taking over the rebel group.  Al-Shabab was also one of the first AQC-aligned groups to eulogize Mullah Muhammad ‘Umar, the founding amir of the Afghan Taliban.  After it was made public in late July that ‘Umar had died of natural causes in April 2013, Al-Shabab organized funeral prayers (salat al-janaza) for him and continued referring to him as “amir al-mu’minin” (commander of the faithful), a title also claimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  

Al-Shabab’s media, though it has always been attracted to Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi and the late Islamic State of Iraq leaders Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, continues to speak respectfully of al-Zawahiri.  Al-Shabab’s senior leadership has not responded publicly yet to Mu’min’s defection, but his move has been criticized by Al-Muhajiroun, a group of Swahili-speaking jihadis aligned with the Somali insurgents and particularly Ahmad Iman Ali, the Kenyan jihadi preacher in charge of Al-Shabab’s Kenyan foreign fighters coming from the Muslim Youth Centre/Al-Hijra recruiting networks in Nairobi, Garissa, and the Swahili Coast.  It also took the Al-Shabab leadership some time to formulate an official response to dissident American foreign fighter Omar Hammami in 2012, with Hammami publicly announcing his break with the group and commencing with extensive online criticism of it in March but Al-Shabab not releasing a detailed response to his allegations until mid-December of that year.  IS has yet to officially accept Mu’min’s bay‘a, though there is little question that the group’s leadership will do so because it is an economical way of projecting an image of expansion and influence without having to make any significant initial investment of resources.  


Ultimately, the medium and long-term impact of the defection of Mu’min and those Puntland-based fighters who left with him rests on future on-the-ground developments in Somalia and East Africa.  If the preacher is joined by other important figures and factions within Al-Shabab’s ranks, for example Ahmad Iman ‘Ali and significant numbers of Kenyan and other East African foreign fighters, who make up a significant number of Al-Shabab’s strength now, the balance could shift against the group’s AQC-aligned leadership.  If discord grows within Al-Shabab’s ranks, it may also enable the Somali government and AMISOM to woo away fighters disillusioned with internal infighting and violence.

Christopher Anzalone is a PhD candidate (ABD) in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.  He has published articles previously on Al-Shabab, the Kenyan Muslim Youth Centre/Al-Hijra, Al-Qa‘ida, the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,  jihadi media operations, foreign fighters, Islamist visual cultures, and the Islamic State.  You can follow him on Twitter and

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

ISIS and the Hollywood Visual Style

By Cori E. Dauber and Mark Robinson

The slick production techniques ISIS uses in its propaganda are the reason people have written about their videos as “Hollywood quality” or “like Hollywood movies.” Obviously this is not, strictly speaking, true. When people write about ISIS videos being like “Hollywood action films,” they don’t mean that in a literal sense – Hollywood blockbusters, after all, cost on average several hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. But that doesn’t mean people saying that aren’t onto something. They’re seeing something in ISIS videos that is reminiscent of Hollywood films that they don’t see in the videos of other groups. Yes, ISIS videos are of far higher quality than are those of other groups – we would say they are, technically, a generation ahead of most others. But there’s something else going on here that people are cueing on. We would argue that, visually, ISIS videos mimic what could be called a “Hollywood visual style.” And this is being done so systematically and carefully that, while its entirely possible that it’s accidental, we find that very unlikely.

While there has been a great deal of work done on the way ISIS uses Social Media to distribute their materials, our focus is on the content of their output, specifically, on their visual material. We believe this focus is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the enormous amount of empirical research that argues that visual material, in many contexts, can actually be more powerful than textual. That is to say, the image can trump the word: it more effectively draws the viewer’s attention, it is remembered more accurately and for a longer period of time.

That’s all well and good, but what specifically does it mean to say that ISIS material is sophisticated in visual terms, or that their videos are done in a “Hollywood visual style?” While that’s a complicated question to get after, one can start by breaking it down in terms of the way ISIS makes use of some of the compositional elements of production to contribute to the persuasive power of their materials, in a way that other groups either cannot or simply do not. We’ll directly contrast some of their videos with some of Jabhat al Nusrah’s to make the point.

  1. What the viewer will notice first: the opening graphics package and the clarity of the image.

ISIS employs “industry standards” for video. That doesn’t necessarily mean standard for Hollywood, it might mean what you see in commercial video or advertisement, but its what we have become accustomed to seeing, what the eye has become accustomed to for anyone who watches a good bit of professionally shot and uploaded media. Neither of us can speak to what is standard outside of Europe and North America, but it seems worth noting that ISIS is systematically working to use visual standards that will give their videos an underlying professional look to someone whose eye is accustomed to a European or North American industry standard.

This is done through a variety of techniques: for example, through the way they deal with the colors in their videos, by adjusting the range of colors you see. They minimize the color palette that comes across on video so that, for instance, there are fewer variances, fewer “shades of red,” presented in their videos than there were in the physical world seen through the viewfinder when they were filming. The result is that the reds they do show you are more vibrant, brighter, higher contrast, and they come across looking sharper and clearer. Just look at how saturated the colors of the produce are in this frame from one of the Mujatweets Episodes:


This requires planning, both pre-and post-production. Many of their videos were clearly shot by a media team trained (and trained sufficiently) to execute in a “digital age” style. So you see this kind of color saturation, high contrast, and an emphasis on resolution. You also see a shallow depth of field – in other words, there is a tight focus on something or someone, but the rest of the visual field is intentionally out of focus. That’s a good example of what we mean by “Hollywood style.” It points specifically to a contemporary trend set by younger media professionals, but someone who had just randomly picked up a camera certainly wouldn’t know to do that. If you look at the most expensively produced Hollywood films of the 1970s or ‘80s, you won’t see a shallow depth of field, because it’s a fairly recent development. As an example:

When video is shot (and when someone prepares to share it via the web or phone) the video must go through a compression process. This makes the files smaller at the cost of lost resolution and visual impact. Most videos we look at are grainy in part because of this process. Another reason ISIS’ videos read as so crisp and clear relative to those of other groups is that they have been shot more carefully and compressed much more carefully.

In less professional videos, already compressed sequences are put together, then exported through a compressor. These lesser quality videos are thus compressed to a point that they appear amateurish, since they read as if the person who produced them didn’t know or, at least, didn’t care that the resolution drops significantly when videos are prepared this way. This is what creates the grainy, pixelated effect. Think about how you automatically can tell the difference between the professionally shot and prepared footage from a news network and the amateur footage that network pulled from some random guy who just happened to be there with a cellphone camera in his pocket when a newsworthy event took place.

IS videos that are crystal clear suggest that there was a crafting hand behind them, one that was trained and careful.

Earlier videos from AQ and the affiliates paid no attention to contemporary industry principles and standards. More recent videos from ISIS (and more and more from some other groups) mark a clear movement: they are being produced according to knowledge and execution of industry standard in the entire process, from pre- to post-production. It seems clear that their media teams are getting trained somewhere.

There is no question that the content of some of the most recent videos released by JN were substantially better than what had been their baseline. But as often seems to be the case with groups other than ISIS, these major advances do not then override, with the prior, weaker style disappearing. There is not a single, controlling visual style, so that even after videos of much higher quality are released, those videos will then be followed by others that look the same as earlier, weaker releases did.

In this JN video that was released recently, they didn’t really know what they were doing, so they were filming with a non-professional, handy-cam, while moving way too fast:

If we just take a still of the sign you can see why that footage appears to be of low quality. Look at the leaves around the sign, and you can see that the image is actually pixelating.


As far as graphics are concerned, as software became available making it easier and easier to produce computer-animated graphics, not only did it become commonplace for these videos to begin with animations, they are often now relatively sophisticated even if the accompanying video is of very low quality. Still, ISIS is in a class by themselves here for several reasons: the consistency of the quality, the crisp resolution of almost all of the graphics they use, and, a key factor, the design. Many groups acquired the ability to incorporate animations, but not necessarily any ability to design ones that worked. Often they go on forever, they’re distracting, they’ve got so much going on, the eye can’t figure out where to focus, and so on.

On this measure, JN made enormous leaps forward recently:

It isn’t, by the way, only JN making these leaps. This one from AQAP is hard to miss: its eye-catching, attractive, and likely took several days of work by someone who really knew what they were doing:

But of course groups now insert graphics into the middle of videos, not just at the beginning.

And compare that to the way ISIS uses graphics in the Mujatweets series:

  1. Composition:

Most ISIS videos appear as if every frame of every shot of every scene has been carefully calculated, thought through, and laid out.

Just consider the stock piece of footage that they use over and over (and that some news networks use as a “visual metaphor” for ISIS): two rows of fighters, one in the black “ninja” outfit, the other row dressed in white, both marching in unison, shot in slow motion and from below. Keep in mind, it is a truism that what is filmed from below will appear larger, more imposing, more authoritative, and so forth. It’s stock footage for them because it came out so well.

Now consider the JN version by way of comparison. You hardly need a communication or media specialist to point out the differences – the outfits don’t match, the editing is jumpy, “professional” is hardly the word that leaps to mind here. But part of the reason it looks this way is that they are producing the zoom shot in a way that, again, is not industry standard, so to anyone who watches a great deal of professionally shot video the result is just disorienting. There is no way the videographer or editor of this footage have much (if any) training (and we’re being a little coy here rather than lay out a “how to” guide for terrorist filmmakers.)

When you look at this, by comparison, you have the distinct impression that you’re looking at fairly standard commercial video about the successful infrastructure projects underway in the Islamic State:

JN, on the other hand, has a history of putting scenes in their videos that are extremely poorly composed. They often frame the shot so as to cut off the heads of the people they’re filming. When they do that with a single speaker, one would assume that’s for security purposes, but they’ll do it, as here, with an entire crowd scene:


This is certainly not to suggest that JN isn’t putting time and energy into their videos. The cuts below involve edits that are intentional, and which would have required a decent current computer. MacBook Pros could have handled this kind of processing, but baseline Lenovos, for instance, might have been able to do the same work, but only after a great deal of effort and a very, very long time.

Some thought and planning, obviously, would have been required, but the technique does not exhibit sophistication or direction: they just shot video, it appears, without a particular script or plan for editing in mind as they did.

Going through this video very carefully, almost frame by frame, it becomes clear that it was filmed not during a pitched battle, but in a deserted area – the buildings being destroyed are empty. You hear gunfire but it is clear that it is staged, shots fired from the filmic perspective with no opposition report. In effect, this is JN’s equivalent of a Hollywood sound stage, and they still weren’t able to quite pull it off. That’s because aspects of the video craft suggest a naïve, amateur, non-professional production process: scenes are unrelated, composition is unconsidered, and while hand held cameras can produce powerful results (as in the walk through the market below) here the result is jerky and out of focus. The overall result is the precise opposite of “Hollywood visual style,” it reads as amateur, particularly given the weakness of the editing technique, which gives no understanding of time passing.

3. Camera angles

ISIS often uses camera angles in extremely sophisticated and subtle ways. One key example is the “subjective” or “first person” camera angle, familiar to everyone who watches movies or television as the way director’s communicate the perspective of a specific character: its what happens when the perspective shifts so that you are now “looking” through the eyes of that character.

ISIS is hardly the first terrorist group to use this in their videos: you’ll see it used in otherwise relatively primitive videos, when all of a sudden the perspective shifts as an IED or suicide truck bomb is being put together and you are looking right down at the hands preparing the bomb to suggest they were your own. ISIS uses that angle all the time, but they do it with great subtly –

We do not get an establishing shot but instead, immediate personal insertion into the market with an intimate camera shot, using a short depth of field.

JN will use this camera angle as well – their version can be recognized as a “First Person Shooter” shot, taken straight out of a video game, but they aren’t especially subtle about it, and often don’t execute it well.  They can’t seem to resist “breaking the spell,” so to speak, by injecting some kind of cheesy effect or graphic as an overlay on top of the shot.

Why is this so important? The whole point of the subjective camera angle is to put the viewer right into the scene. It literally invites the viewer to imagine him or herself there – and isn’t that the whole point of recruiting? While there is no empirical data on the reaction of target audiences to these videos specifically, here there is excellent proxy data: substantial work on the use of subjective camera angle’s effect on viewers of sports coverage. That research makes clear that the use of this camera angle creates a sense of physical presence that increases a viewer’s enjoyment, that this sensation is greater if the material viewed is more exciting, (as with the First Person Shooter example), and that the greater a viewer’s “fanship” the more pronounced this effect.

You also see evidence of ISIS sophistication in the cases when they have clearly used multiple cameras to film the same subject from more than one angle, as here:

By way of contrast, JN wants to accomplish the same effect here:

But it’s clear they’re doing it by moving a single camera to a second position, and the result isn’t nearly as effective – or as professional looking. It is definitely not “Hollywood style.”

4. Lighting

It can be difficult for a viewer to even make out the objects in a poorly lit scene, but well done lighting creates for the viewer the rhetorical effect the video producer wants: a subject can be made to appear happy, sad, a good guy or a villain, the scene can be made to appear frightening or safe, all through lighting. Look at the way ISIS lights this fighter as he tells others to emigrate to the Islamic State:


Even in newer releases where the resolution is sharper, Nusra’s lighting is often either dark or muddy.


JN’s quality is so uneven, their video’s can literally look as if two different teams produced them. Lighting is a good way to make that point; look at the difference in the lighting (and resolution) in the beginning of this video:

And compare that to the second half of the same video, where the family is professionally lit:


5. Editing

Look how the exact same camera angle as in the Mujatweets video doesn’t work nearly as well when the footage is fuzzed out, and the editing is jumpy. It destroys the sensation:

Within the video, the sensation that is key to sustaining the audience’s suspension of reality requires a certain seamlessness, and that in turn requires high craft – again, it is that “Hollywood visual style” we’re discussing. Any break at all in craft, and the ability to sustain that suspension is broken, as the audience questions the work. When video reflects a higher craft in terms of story, editing, lighting, composition, and so forth, its possible for an audience to become more intimately involved in the work. This doesn’t mean that choices such as choppy edits, the use of handheld cameras, or high grain will never work: clearly they can be very effective, but they are effective when they reflect intentional choices artfully made, in which case they can be used to produce a visceral aesthetic. Our focal point is videos that are evidence that high craft is in use, which means that IS understands that the suspension of reality has rhetorical value and understands how to produce it even for audiences used to the industry standards of Europe and North America.

It isn’t that good editing is always smooth, or that quick cuts can’t be effective. Good editing is editing that contributes to the effect the video producer is trying to create. Rapid cuts, synched to music (or a voice over) can work very well, especially for a younger audience. The editing has to appear intentional, has to work to the overall effect.

6. Effects

Special effects can contribute to the persuasive effect of a video or, if overdone or out of place, become a distraction. There are points where ISIS uses effects with sophistication, even (on their own terms) wit:

Sometimes they use effects simply for purposes of making a particular video look more “professional,” thus adding to its credibility, for example:


Our point here is this: there are a range of compositional elements that contribute to whether or not videos will look professional, whether they appear to have that “Hollywood visual style.” Other groups are certainly closing the gap with ISIS here, but ISIS’ visual materials aren’t just “slick” or “sophisticated.” They are making very specific choices that contribute to a very specific visual style. And while most consumers of Western media might not be able to discuss, for example, the virtues of a shallow vs. a deep visual field, they do know what it is they have become accustomed to, and they would most certainly notice it if they were watching media that failed to meet the standards they were accustomed to. By producing video products that largely meet industry standards ISIS is doing something no terrorist group we know of has ever done before.

Dr. Cori E. Dauber (@coridauber) is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is also a Research Fellow at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS.)

Mark Robinson is the Director of the Multimedia Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

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TTP Says That Baghdadi’s Caliphate Is Not Islamic—But Is Anyone Listening? 

By Dur-e-Aden

On June 15, 2015, the Taliban in Pakistan released a 66 page document in Urdu detailing why Baghdadi’s caliphate is not Islamic. While organized in the form of an academic paper, with a central thesis and scholarly citations, the document itself is hastily written and is an exercise in repetition. Nevertheless, it gives a glimpse into the strategic thinking of TTP, and indicates that they feel threatened enough by Baghdadi to release this statement.

The introductory paragraphs discuss the time of the Prophet, and contrasts Baghdadi’s actions against it. For example, when the Prophet was militarily weak in Mecca, he did not break any idols in the Kaaba since this would have opened up a war on multiple fronts. Moreover, he did not kill those hypocrites who claimed to be Muslims but were actually enemies of Islam, as people would have accused him of killing his friends and starting a civil war. In short, he was a pragmatic military strategist, and doing so didn’t entail that he was giving in to the kuffar (infidels). Today, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan see themselves as following this path by only fighting the occupying forces, while both Hanafi and Salafi Muslims reside on this land. However, ISIS’s actions against other Muslims, especially in the Nangahar province, from the Taliban’s perspective is benefitting the enemies of Islam.

The document then lists 24 reasons laced with religious references, both from the Islamic history of different caliphates, as well as the opinions of various Salafi and non-Salafi scholars. The central theme is that a caliph cannot be appointed without the consensus of the majority of the Umma. In the case of Baghdadi, neither the majority of the Muslim Umma, nor the majority of the Jihadi Umma, have pledged allegiance to him. The document lists examples of people such as Mullah Omar, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, Abdollah Mohsini, Abu Qatada al-Falasteeni, as well as emirs of Al-Shabaab, AQAP, and South-east Asian militant groups, whose lack of support has rendered his caliphate to be invalid. Finally, even if Baghdadi claims to be elected by a Shura of representatives, how can a caliph that is supposed to be the leader of Muslims worldwide be selected only by a regional Shura?

The document goes on to discuss certain responsibilities of a caliph that Baghdadi is not equipped to carry out. For example, a caliph is supposed to defend all Muslims and create conditions where they can live in peace.  However, considering that Baghdadi himself is in involved in war, how can he protect Muslims worldwide, from Xinjiang to Morocco, who are embroiled in different conflicts? Furthermore, a caliph has to be involved in the day to day affairs of his people such as resolving disputes, collecting zakat from the rich to give to the poor, and making people follow Sharia. Baghdadi on the other hand, can’t even appear in public. While talking about these issues, the document refers to a Prophet’s saying, which states that “Both me (the Prophet) and God curse him who forcefully imposes his rule without the consent of the Muslims.”

The final part of the document challenges specific interpretations of ISIS with regards to the primary Islamic sources. TTP argue that all the “misguided” sects throughout history have quoted the texts to justify their ideological positions. For example, Mu’tazila believe that Quran is a created book because God says in the Quran that “God created everything.” Similarly, Barelvis claim that Prophet is present everywhere because Quran mentions, “And among you is his Messenger.” However, the TTP argues, these interpretations are still wrong. Therefore, when Baghdadi quotes the hadith which urges Muslims to pledge allegiance to their caliph or they would die in ignorance, it does not refer to his caliphate. It only refers to the caliphate of a specific Imam who is appointed according to Sharia, and whose appointment fulfills all the conditions of the bayah. As we (the TTP) have shown, that is not the case.

But is this document going to be effective in persuading people to not join ISIS? It is very unlikely. As both Graeme Wood and Hassan Hassan have argued, one of the important characteristics of ISIS’s ideology is that it is anti-clerical. Hence, going against centuries of established Islamic traditions, and directly to the text of Quran and the Hadith gives them a certain purity. As a result, when others claim that ISIS is not Islamic, they are not only immune to this messaging, but actually enjoy it. ISIS refers to the Prophet’s hadith which states that during the end of times, there will be 73 sects of Muslims, and only one of them will be the true one. Seeing so many other Muslim sects united against them actually proves their point. Therefore, when it comes to the new generation of jihadists, even those in Afghanistan and Pakistan can get motivated by ISIS’s peculiar religious ideology, accompanied by a winning narrative, illusions of grandeur, and a promise to be part of an historical project.

However, because Pakistan in particular has a plethora of jihadist groups, their core members are unlikely to shift their allegiance to ISIS, especially if they have fought for a particular cause for a long time (e.g. against India, against Coalition forces in Afghanistan, against Pakistani state etc.), and that cause has become central to their identity. Being part of a coherent organizational structure increases the likelihood that those members are clearheaded of what their short term goals are, and being part of a worldwide caliphate doesn’t appear near the top of their lists.

Finally, while this is true that some of the defectors from these established groups, such as the TTP itself, have pledged allegiance to ISIS; it should be noted that those members defected at a time when they were dissatisfied with their positions in the existing organization, and the organization was going through infighting. In other words, there might be an underlying opportunistic motivation for their defection, as opposed to an ideological one. Not to mention that Taliban comes from a Deobandi tradition within Islam, which is distinctive from the Salafist background of ISIS. This can spell good and bad news for ISIS. The good news is that they have helped ISIS in establishing a presence in the Af-Pak region. The bad news is that opportunistic fighters are more likely to accelerate the divisions within ISIS’s ranks as well, as they compete for money and power (the reasons that they left their previous organizations for). Moreover, they are more likely to neglect or disobey ISIS’s orders over the long run, especially if the ideological commitment to ISIS’s cause is absent.

Therefore for now, as far as this document goes, TTP might be preaching to an already convinced audience.

Dur-e-Aden is a PhD student at University of Toronto where her research focuses on rebel recruitment within Islamist insurgent organizations. She holds a MA in Political Science from University of British Columbia, and tweets @aden1990.