The Islamic State’s “province” in Yemen has encountered a setback in the past two weeks. More than one dozen senior leaders, along with scores of fighters, have openly rebelled against the group’s governor (wali) for what they claim are serious violations of sharia, or Islamic law.
Seventy members of the Islamic State’s Yemeni branch announced their “defection” from the Islamic State’s wali in a letter published online on Dec. 15. The Long War Journal has obtained a translation of the letter, entitled “A Statement of Defection from the Wali of Yemen.”
The dissenters include three members of the organization’s “sharia committee” (identified as Sheikh Abu Hajar al Adani, Sheikh Abu al Shayma al Muhajir, and Sheikh Abu Muslim al Mansour), the “province’s” military emir (Abu ‘Assim al Bika), and the chief of general security (known as “Sadiq”).
While the renegade commanders and fighters said they no longer view the governor of Yemen Province as their emir, they first and foremost reaffirmed their allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-declared “caliph” of the Islamic State.
“We, the soldiers of the Islamic State in Yemen, the undersigned, do hereby declare our pledge to the caliph of the Muslims, Ibrahim Ibn Awad al Hussayni al Qurayshi [the formal name for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi], and once again renew our pledge to the caliph in all matters, except in those matters in which we observe clear apostasy,” the dissenters wrote.
The authors then accused the governor and his “inner circle” of committing “excesses and violations against sharia,” adding that the Islamic State’s home office has not resolved the problems.
“Despite our efforts to advise and inform the caliph’s office on matters happening in Yemen, the violations against the sharia remain present and continue to increase,” the letter continued. “They stopped working in accordance with the prophetic path regarding the resolution of many problems and issues.” The location of the “caliph’s office” is not identified, but is presumably in Raqqa, Syria or Mosul, Iraq, the two most important cities controlled by Baghdadi’s men.
The cadre of Islamic State followers then listed three violations of sharia supposedly committed by the governor (wali): the wrongful “dismissal of a number of soldiers” after they filed a complaint, a failure to provide “basic resources” during a battle in Hadramout province, and the refusal to submit to a sharia ruling against a regional commander. Additionally, the group accused the wali of “oppressing the downtrodden” and “expelling the muhajireen,” or foreign fighters.
They then demanded that Baghdadi dismiss the governor for Yemen, along with “his retinue.”
The name of the governor for the Islamic State’s Yemen “province” has not been disclosed by the group, which has intentionally kept the names of its leadership cadre secret. According to Gregory Johnsen, the governor for Yemen is a Saudi known as Abu Bilal al Harbi, or Nasser al Ghaydani.
Islamic State responds to “defection”
The Islamic State’s central governing body quickly responded to the letter from the dissenters in Yemen. On Dec. 19, Abu Ubaydah Abd al Hakim, a “Member of the Shura Council of the Caliphate,” issued a scathing response. Hakim is a legacy jihadist leader who served with the Islamic State’s predecessors, al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State in Iraq.
“We received your letter … and it contained your statement which justified your audacity in defecting from the commissioned emir, who was appointed by the commander of the faithful [Baghdadi], may Allah protect him, over Yemen,” Hakim said, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal.
Hakim “rejected” the request to remove the governor of Yemen and said that the group, by “disobeying” the governor, had renounced its pledge to Baghdadi.
“What you have ventured to do is absolutely rejected. You must hear and obey he who has been tasked with your emirate, and you tasked by his emiracy over you,” Hakim continued. “For if he is wrong, the defection of a group is a manner of disobeying the imam and an offense against him, and it is a renunciation of your pledge of allegiance to the caliph of Muslims if you claim a dispute against him. The walis do the work of the caliph, so hear and obey them as long as they do not order insubordination against Allah; their obedience is not to be questioned as long as you do not see a brazen nonbeliever among them.”
The rift within the Islamic State’s Yemen province appears to be significant. While the size of the Yemen-based contingent is not publicly known, some estimates indicate that it has several hundred fighters in its ranks. Therefore, the defection of 15 senior leaders and 55 fighters is no small fissure.
Additionally, the disagreement was deemed important enough that the shura council of the “caliphate” was forced to immediately respond. Hakim’s rebuttal was issued just four days after the initial letter was published.
It is unclear if the rebel Islamic State cadre has returned to the fold, or has permanently broken away from the group’s governor in Yemen. The renegades have not issued a response to Hakim. Historically, the Islamic State has been brutal in its response to those who have challenged the authority of its leaders.
Jihadists connected to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is more powerful that the Islamic State in Yemen, have celebrated the split and are courting the wayward Islamic State fighters. They may join AQAP, rejoin the Islamic State’s governor, or form their own new faction.