Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Forecasting the Past: Remembering Jama`at al-Muslimin – Precursor of the Islamic State and its Rivalry with Al-Qaeda

The ascendancy of the Islamic State from a trivial Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq into a global jihadist organization that has dominated both the Middle-Eastern and North-African Islamist landscapes has puzzled Intelligence Agencies, International Organizations and International Policy Makers alike, across the world. Nonetheless, understanding its rise within the historical perspective of Global Jihad and Al-Qaeda’s strategic projections to create a global caliphate would demystify most of the mysteries cloaking the Islamic State. This is due to the fact that the Islamic State arose from the ashes of one of the most extremist factions within Al-Qaeda - Jama`at al-Muslimin (JaM). JaM formed the core matrix of Salafist-jihadists -  more radical than Al-Qaeda leaders - who would inspire the radicalization ethos and brutal tactics presently being used by the Islamic State to respectively radicalize impressionable Muslims in the West as well as maltreat and dehumanize their rivals (both combatants and non-combatants).
The rise of the Islamic State in 2014 was unprecedented in both global and regional realms. This is principally due to its rapid ascendancy to military dominance over the Syria-Iraq Theater of War, its proto-state structure and its ability to rapidly gain affiliates – mostly at the expense of its rival transnational Islamist-Jihadist organization, Al-Qaeda[1].
The western world was instantaneously shocked and perplexed by the military successes of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also abbreviated as ISIS if Levant is substituted for its Arabic equivalent, Al-Sham) starting from February 2014 and culminating in its capture of Mosul in June 2014 whence it announced itself as the most dominant fighting force in both Iraq and Syria. Likewise, ISIL has also horrified the world with its widely self-publicized brutality and savagery[2].
Islamic State has shocked the World with its Publicized Brutality. Photo Credit: Reuters
Prior to 2014, the Concept of a global caliphate was peddled by Al-Qaeda,[3] but even its most optimistic strategists considered it an implausible Idea whose time had not arrived; and Al-Qaeda had instead  tasked its jihadists to prioritize on destroying the Near Enemy while Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) strategized on how to cripple the Far Enemy[4].
Nonetheless, the feat accomplished by ISIL stunned everyone, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS itself which interpreted their rapid successes as a series of Divine Miracles. Using its newfound international publicity - grounded on its spectacular military successes which were in turn founded on its uncompromising and intolerant Islamist ideology - the Islamic State projected itself as the only legitimate Islamic administration worthy of allegiance (Baay’ah)[5].
The self-declared Caliphate introduced a novelty in the global war against terror as the Islamic State quickly built state institutions and strengthened its judiciary, while its executive arm ensured that the borders of the nascent caliphate are protected and its population conforms to ISIL-approved Sharia law and Islamic way of life[6]. Nonetheless, ISIL was considered illegitimately extremist by Al-Qaeda, its parent organization – which had expelled it from the Al-Qaeda franchise[7].
Even so, ISIL over-ambitiousness and hardline creeds were not new to al-Qaeda. In 1990s, Al-Qaeda was grappling with a horde of hot-headed insubordinate and subversive Afghan-Arabs who peddled around their unsound Caliphal credentials[8]. This horde banded itself together under the banner of Jama`at al-Muslimin (JaM), and it would experience a tragic rise to infamous prominence among jihadists prior to its anticipated and well-deserved downfall. JaM should not be confused with a related group, Takfir wal-Hijra, which shared the same ideologies but operated in a different Theater of Jihad[9].
In the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda sees the reincarnation of JaM, and is horrified that ISIL would provoke mass exterminations of Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria – hence its determined opposition to a group which Al-Qaeda considers to have established a heretical caliphate that would foreshadow the ultimate ruin of Sunni ascendancy in both Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Muhammad ibn Isa ibn Musa al-Rifa`i
The most notable figure behind Jama`at al-Muslimin is one Muhammad ibn Isa ibn Musa al-Rifa`i (noms de guerre Abu Hammam al-Filistini and Abu `Isa al-Rifa`i); a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who held Jordanian citizenship.
Muhammad al-Rifa`i was born in 1959 to Palestinian parents residing in the Jordanian town of al-Zarqa where he grew up. He attended Jordanian schools and graduated as a medical doctor from one of its universities. During his university years, he joined the Jordanian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, where he began his Islamist activism. In mid-1980’s, al-Rifa`i relocated to Pakistan as part of the Arab Nusra (Support) Front for the Afghan Mujahideen. In Pakistan, he worked as a doctor, and also engaged in daa’wah (Islamic proselytization). It was during this time that he made acquaintances with prominent Islamist-jihadi leaders including Osama bin Laden;[10] and a fellow Jordanian (of Palestinian descent), who also happened to be the most prominent Salafist scholar and jihadi expositor, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam[11].
After the collapse and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union in early 1990s, al-Rifa`i returned to Jordan where his obdurate beliefs – especially on the concept of Tawheed and the need for a Unitary Islamic Government - were at odds with the aspirations of the Jordanian Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood,[12] and he ended up abandoning the Brotherhood. Al-Rifa`i would later link up an ideological-compatible jihadist, Abu al-Muntasir; and together they would form the al-Da`waah wal-Jihad organization whose Wahhabi-jihadist orientation alarmed the Jordanian Government which consequently countered (the organization) by suppressing it prior to dismantling it.
Al-Rifa`i would then proceed to propagate his Salafi-jihadi doctrines to the wider Jordanian public – mainly through distribution of the literature penned down by one of the chief strategists of Al-Qaeda, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. al-Rifa`i passionately expounded on the obligation of Jordanian Muslims to violently oppose American military operations against Iraq during the First Gulf War. The activities of al-Rifa`i during this period led Hasan Abu Haniyya to regard him as a principal architect of Jordanian Islamist-Jihadism. Likewise the Jordanian authorities were increasingly alarmed by his activities; and they imprisoned him in 1992, alongside other prominent Jordanian jihadists - during the suppression of the seditious activities of Jaysh al-Muhammad (Army of Muhammad)[13]. After a four-month stunt in Jordanian prison, he was released, and he promptly went into exile in Peshawar, Pakistan; where he found the Afghan-Arab Mujahideen plagued with leadership vacuum following the assassination Abdullah Azzam by Russian agents[14].
Disorder Plagues the Afghan-Arab Mujahedeen
In 1992, the Afghan-Arab Mujahideen were plagued with a myriad of problems; chief among them being a leadership vacuum following Azzam’s assassination and the decision of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to place Osama bin Laden under house arrest owing to his opposition to the ruling al-Saud Dynasty. Abu al-Walid al-Misri, a prominent jihadist of Egyptian origin, would later concede that in 1992, the Afghan-Arab mujahedeen were on the verge of disunion and collapse as several factions left Pakistan thus demoralizing the remaining jihadists as well as weakening the jihadist campaign against the Afghan tribal warlords[15].
Emergence of Jama`at al-Muslimin
It was in this environment that Jama`at al-Muslimin emerged when a group of Islamic Scholars (including al-Rifa`i) and Madrassa Students strove to expunge Jahiliyya (ignorance) - which they considered pervasive amongst the leadership of the Mujahideen. These Islamic Scholars and their erstwhile students concluded that the principal blunder made by the mujahedeen was to non-cohesively plunge into the Afghan theater of war, as their original disunion guaranteed an eventual periodic infighting among them after the defeat of the Soviets. This infighting, they concluded, went against one of the principal tenets of Sharia – that the Ummah is one unified body which must be led by a single administration under a leader who aspires to achieve the prime objective of subordinating the whole world under Islam. To actualize this aim, Abu `Uthman al-Filistini – a US citizen of Palestinian descent – working alongside Abu Ayyub al-Barqawi – a jihadi from Sudan - conceptualized that a Caliphate was needed, and a Caliph was thus needed to guide and rule the Caliphate[16]. The group decided to form Jama`at al-Muslimin to serve the dual purpose of strengthening the Ummah as well as serve as a vehicle towards the actualization of the Khilafa. Muhammad ibn Isa ibn Musa al-Rifa`i was one of the founding Emirs of JaM; but Abu `Uthman al-Filistini was the principal force behind the new organization.
Selecting the Caliph
Uthman al-Filistini and Ayyub al-Barqawi had been the most prominent, vocal and committed proponents of the need for a unitary Sharia-based administration which would unify the Ummah besides ushering in the ultimate Salvation; and as such they were tasked with the duty of finding a caliph. The two enjoined al-Rifa`i in their quest for a caliph. Since a caliph must fulfill certain obligatory requirements –including belonging to the Qurayshi tribe, the two were forced to seek a caliph among the Arabs in the Middle East, and they eventually settled on a Saudi National who was promptly arrested and jailed by the Saudi authorities fearful of having two centres of power in the kingdom. Meanwhile, al-Rifa`i journeyed to the United Kingdom to seek out the Caliph, and during his sojourn in Britain, he preached about Islamic Monotheism, and called on British Muslims to support him and his organization financially.
After months of a fruitless search, al-Filistini and al-Barqawi returned back to Peshawar where JaM was based. In Peshawar, al-Rifa`i’s acolytes - understanding that he was originally a Palestinian who had settled in Jordan - decided to investigate his genealogy, as it was well known that some Jordanians and Palestinians were direct descendants of Muhammed or members of his Quraysh tribe[17]. After a period of investigations, they found out that al-Rifa`i had indeed descended from the Qurayshis; and they recalled him to Peshawar. On 3rd April 1993, JaM declared al-Rifa`i (and renamed him Abu Isa Muhammad Ali ibn Ahmad Al-Hashimy Al-Qurayshi) as their Caliph, with Uthman al-Filistini serving as his deputy and Ayyub al-Barqawi[18] serving as the chief Kadhi (judge).
Announcing the Caliphate
Abu Ayyub al-Barqawi officially announced the establishment of the caliphate and implored on all Muslims to pledge an oath of allegiance to Caliph Abu Isa Muhammad Ali ibn Ahmad Al-Hashimy Al-Qurayshi. Likewise, al-Barqawi clearly outlined the responsibilities and obligations of the Caliph, principal among them being the abolishment of man-made laws, primacy of Sharia, and unwavering opposition to Kuffar (non-Sharia based) governments. Moreover, the Caliph was obliged to assemble all Muslims under the banner of the Sharia and also impose the primacy of Islam across the World through both offensive and defensive jihad[19].
The aforementioned obligations are presently being actualized by the Islamic State as it plunges the Middle East into turmoil besides threatening regional stability in North Africa. Nonetheless, Al-Qaeda would stubbornly and determinedly oppose JaM, just as it is presently severely and inflexibly opposed to the Islamic State. The reasons why Al-Qaeda was vehemently against the Caliphate declared by JaM and is still opposed to the Caliphate declared by the Islamic State are expounded on the second part of this piece. In both cases, the past hurdles faced by Al-Qaeda have returned to haunt it; and it is also highly probable that the Islamic State will suffer a fate worse than that of Jama`at al-Muslimin, that is, total defeat and utter annihilation.

[1] Bunzel, Cole (2015). From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State. Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings [Analysis Paper, No. 19, March 2015].
[2] Seib, Gerald and Spindle, Bill (30 August 2014). “Brutal rise of Islamist state turns old enemies into new friends”. Wall Street Journal.
[3] Bunzel, loc.cit.
[4] Atwan, Abdel Bari (2006). The Secret History of Al Qaeda. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
[5] Jenkins, Brian Michael (2014). Brothers Killing Brothers: The Current Infighting Will Test al Qaeda’s Brand. RAND Corporation [Perspective].
[6] Barret, Richard (2014). The Islamic State. The Soufan Group [Intelligence Report published on November 2014].
[7] Jenkins, loc.cit.
[8] Sageman, Marc (2004). Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
[9] Dalacoura, Katerina (2011). Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East. London: Cambridge University Press.
[10] Atwan, loc.cit.
[11] Sageman, loc.cit.
[12] Kepel, Gilles (2002). Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
[13] Wagemakers, Joas (2012). A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. London: Cambridge University Press.
[14] Gunaratna, Rohan (2002). Inside Al Qaeda (1st Ed.). London: C. Hurst & Co.
[15] Goodson, Larry (2001). Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban. University of Washington Press.
[16] 7th Century Generation (2007). Discussion Forum: Caliph Elected and given Bayah before Khilafah Established. (Accessed on 23 September 2015).  This is an English-Language Islamist online discussion forum where predominantly European and American Jihadis converge to have a discourse on current affairs and other critical issues affecting the Muslim community.
[17] 7th Century Generation, loc.cit.
[18] 7th Century Generation, loc.cit.
[19] 7th Century Generation, loc.cit.

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