Al Qaeda sharia officials address Caucasus defectors in joint statement

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Ibrahim al Rubaish (left) and Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari (right) are both AQAP ideologues. Along with eight other jihadists, including two from the Al Nusrah Front, they issued a statement addressing the Caucasus jihadists who have defected to the Islamic State. This image is taken from an AQAP video that was posted online last July.

When a senior Islamic Caucasus Emirate (ICE) commander in Dagestan and others swore allegiance to the Islamic State in mid-December, it caused an uproar among jihadists in the Caucasus. The emir of ICE, Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani, issued a stinging rebuke, saying the defections were a “treacherous act” and “caused a split among the mujahideen.”

More than one month after the defections, the controversy is still an issue for al Qaeda and its allies.

On Jan. 28, a statement from ten veteran jihadist ideologues was posted on the web site for Vilayat Dagestan, which is one of ICE’s so-called “provinces.” The jihadists denounce the defections and argue that the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” is illegitimate because it was not established according to sharia law.

Their statement was first obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Two of the signatories are Harith al Nadhari and Ibrahim Rubaish, both of whom are senior ideologues in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Nadhari, one of AQAP’s most senior sharia officials, has become a fierce critic of the Islamic State. Rubaish, an ex-Guantanamo detainee, provides the ideological justifications for AQAP’s attacks and plays a key role in collecting donations for the group.

Two others who signed the release are Sami al Uraydi, the senior sharia official for the Al Nusrah Front in Syria, and Abu Mariya al Qahtani, another Al Nusrah sharia official. Qahtani was once one of the jihadist group’s highest ranking sharia officials, but he was reportedly replaced in that capacity. He has been highly critical of al Qaeda’s response to the Islamic State’s rise, but is apparently still in Al Nusrah.

The participation of sharia officials from both AQAP and Al Nusrah demonstrates a degree of coordination across al Qaeda’s branches. And this is not the first time officials from two al Qaeda branches have coordinated their messaging with respect to the Islamic State. In mid-September, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and AQAP published a joint statement encouraging jihadist unity in the face of American-led airstrikes in Syria. Both AQIM and AQAP have rejected the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria but wanted the jihadists to unite against their common enemies. The gambit failed, as the Islamic State remains opposed to all other groups in Syria.

Other well-known jihadist ideologues who signed the statement include Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, an al Qaeda-linked cleric who works closely with Al Nusrah, and Hani Sibai, a longtime ally of Ayman al Zawahiri dating back to the days when they were both in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Four others signed it as well.

The ten signatories say that they “have received the recent news” out of the Caucasus “about the arrival of the sedition of the [Islamic] State and the splitting” of the jihadists’ ranks, and they “fear that the rifle will be turned away from the enemy that assails the religion and honor, to be turned against the chests of your mujahideen brothers,” SITE’s translation reads.

The “declaration by the [Islamic] State of a Caliphate is invalid” according to sharia law, they argue, because Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization did not build a proper consensus within the Ummah (community of worldwide Muslims) before making its announcement.

They contend that the Islamic State did not consult with “the honest scholars of the Ummah and their sincere local leaders and their ilk” before declaring Baghdadi to be “Caliph Ibrahim.” The Islamic State’s jihadist critics have consistently made this same argument against the group.

The authors repeat a common al Qaeda argument: Declaring the establishment of an Islamic emirate (or state) is foolish as long as the US remains a global power. They say that Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri (“the mujahid sheikh”), and Attiyah Abd al Rahman (a deceased al Qaeda leader) all held this view. It is, therefore, “vanity” to establish emirates “under the shadow of the global system of disbelief led by America,” because this system does not “stop interfering in the lands of the Muslims.”

The ideologues go on to cite an anti-Islamic State booklet by another al Qaeda ideologue, Abu Qatada, as well as an AQAP-produced lecture series starring Nadhari to further buttress their arguments.

The statement’s signatories also discuss the ICE jihadists’ pledge of allegiance to the emir of the group, Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani. The Caucasus jihadists who swore allegiance to the Islamic State broke their oaths to Dagestani, but the authors do not want this to lead to more jihadist infighting. They argue that “breaking the pledge” to Dagestani “does not give permission for sacred blood to be shed,” according to SITE. In other words, the authors do not want the infighting that has hampered the jihadists’ efforts in Syria to spread to the Caucasus.

Still, Dagestani is lauded in the statement, which describes his appointment as the emir of ICE as a “blessing.” The authors say that Dagestani “is following the steps of the previous trustworthy ones,” including Ibn Khattab, Shamil Basayev, Abu al Walid, and Doku Umarov. All of those named as Dagestani’s predecessors are deceased al Qaeda-linked jihadi leaders who served in the Caucasus. Umarov was Dagestani’s immediate predecessor as the head of ICE.

Given that Dagestani is an appropriate leader for ICE, the ideologues argue, the Caucasus jihadists’ “loyalty” to him is “required by sharia” and “it is forbidden to break it.”

It is unclear what, if any, effect the joint statement will have on tensions in the Caucasus.

The Vilayat Dagestan web site is currently trumpeting additional statements from the same al Qaeda ideologues who jointly authored the message.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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