Nine leading rebel groups in Syria have rejected the Islamic State’s claim that it has established a Caliphate stretching across parts of Iraq and Syria.
In a statement released online, the nine groups say “the announcement by the rejectionists [the Islamic State] of a caliphate is null and void,” both “legally and logically.” The nine groups, all of which have long been opposed to the Islamic State, say that the announced Caliphate will not change how they deal with the organization.
The signatories warn other jihadist individuals and organizations not to support the Islamic State. They argue that the decision to announce a Caliphate is self-serving and an attempt to “abort the blessed revolutions in Syria and Iraq.”
Two of the nine signatories are the Islamic Front, a powerful rebel coalition that includes the al Qaeda-linked Ahrar al Sham, and the Majlis Shura al Mujahideen (MSM) in Deir Izzor. The MSM is an alliance of groups, including the Al Nusrah Front, that is opposed to the Islamic State in eastern Syria.
On its Twitter feed, the MSM posted a link to the statement rejecting the Islamic State’s announced caliphate. The MSM says the Islamic State’s announcement is part of “a systematic campaign to distort sharia terms” and the Islamic State has “distorted jihad, sharia, and [the rules for] punishment, and now they want to distort the Caliphate.”
In addition to the Islamic Front and the MSM, the sharia councils of seven other groups signed the rejection of the Islamic State’s Caliphate.
The reaction from the Al Nusrah Front’s leaders was equally dismissive. The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, grew out of the Islamic State’s predecessor organizations, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS). Despite these common roots, the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State have been openly at odds since last year.
In a series of tweets in both English and Arabic, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, a top sharia official in the Al Nusrah Front, sharply criticized the Islamic State’s announcement. While using the hashtag #Khilafah_Proclaimed in his tweets, Abu Sulayman argued that the Islamic State’s failure to consult jihadi leaders before making the announcement “is a clear breach of Islam.”
“The situation has not changed at all here,” Abu Sulayman said in one tweet, referring to Syria. “Only difference I see is there is a stronger ‘Islamic’ justification for them [the Islamic State] to kill Muslims.” The Islamic State has long justified the killing of other rebel fighters and leaders by arguing that it is the only legitimate authority in Iraq and Syria.
Abu Sulayman, who is from Australia, served as a mediator during al Qaeda’s early attempts to reconcile the ISIS with other jihadist groups in Syria. When those efforts failed, he became a vocal critic of the ISIS and is now a staunch opponent of the Islamic State.
Two other senior Al Nusrah Front officials who are active on Twitter also quickly denounced the Islamic State. One of them, Sami al Uraydi, said the Islamic State’s announcement “is really a declaration of war against Muslims, rather than [the establishment of] an Islamic Caliphate.” Uraydi levied a criticism similar to Abu Sulayman’s as well, arguing that the Caliphate is supposed to be governed by rules agreed upon by Muslim scholars and not according to the demands of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.
Another Al Nusrah Front official, Al Gharib al Muhajir al Qahtani, dismissed the Islamic State’s Caliphate as “imaginary.” According to al Qahtani, the Islamic State previously failed to procure the support of “many students of [Islamic] knowledge and leaders.” Thus, the group has now become obsessed with the idea of a Caliphate, hoping to earn the jihadist legitimacy it lacked when it was merely a state.
The criticisms of the Islamic State’s announcement are unsurprising. In reality, the battle lines between the Islamic State and its rivals in Iraq and Syria were drawn long ago.