Today’s jihadists are too extreme even for leading ideologues of holy war
A YEAR after his extradition from Britain, Omar Mahmoud Othman, better known as Abu Qatada, a burly preacher accused of being al-Qaeda’s man in Europe, relaxes in his plush sitting-room adorned with white lilies in the Jordanian capital, Amman. He is giggling at an Instagram picture of a kitten dressed in an explosive suicide belt. Then, with fellow jihadists, he guffaws at footage on a mobile phone of Theresa May, Britain’s Home Secretary, denouncing extremists and quoting from the Koran at the Tory party conference. “Who is she to speak in the name of Islam?” mocks his scrawny guest, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the leading ideologues of holy war.
For more than 30 years, Abu Qatada (pictured, right) and Mr Maqdisi (left) , both Jordanians of Palestinian origin raised on the idea that the West gave their homeland to the Jews, have inspired fighters waging jihad. They went to Afghanistan to support the fightagainst the Soviets in the late 1980s, when al-Qaeda was founded. Later, fleeing a Jordanian death sentence, Abu Qatada sought asylum in London in 1993. He was arrested in 2002, following al-Qaeda’s attacks on America in September 2001. After a prolonged legal battle, he was deported to Jordan in 2013 and, to Britain’s embarrassment, was acquitted of terrorism in September.
Mr Maqdisi, for his part, spent a total of 16 years in a Jordanian prison, before being released in June. In jail he was mentor to a generation of jihadists and acquired a reputation as the world’s leading ideologue of holy war. Among his protégés was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who became leader of al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, the forerunner of Islamic State (IS), which controls swathes of Iraq and Syria. Zarqawi was killed by an American bomb in 2006. “I’m labelled the world’s fifth-most-dangerous terrorist,” Mr Maqdisi smirks proudly, scanning an anti-jihadist website.
Now in their mid-50s and briefly reunited out of prison, the two men take pride in the fruits of their labour. From a struggle on the Somali and Afghan fringes of the Islamic world, the jihad they helped to kindle now burns in the Arab heartland and laps at the gates of Israel. Even some of their politically minded rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood, who embraced civil disobedience and democratic politics during the Arab Spring in 2011, are increasingly sympathetic, following the military coup that overthrew Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Muhamad Morsi, that they will only wrest power by spilling blood.
From Syria to Sinai, where Bedouin jihadists killed 30 Egyptian soldiers last week, militants are raising the black flag of jihad, and often in the name of IS. The large coalition led by America to roll back IS opens a new chapter in what ideologues hail as the climactic battle for Islam. As if anticipating the End of Days, Abu Qatada’s young son has a ringtone on his mobile phone of the crash of an incoming missile followed by a jihadist anthem.
But the two ideologues also have concerns. Repeatedly the jihad they advocated has spiralled out of control in the hands of their protégés, particularly in the application of the concept of takfir, the pronunciation of apostasy, which in Islamic law is punishable by death. Early radicals had applied the concept to Muslim leaders who failed to apply God’s law; Mr Maqdisi extended it to their armed forces. “Remove the tent-pegs and the tent will fall,” he says. But the jihadists of al-Qaeda and IS have stretched the rules of engagement much further, to include civilians, non-Muslim and Muslim alike. (No matter if righteous Muslims are killed as collateral damage, argue some younger jihadists; it will only speed their entry to heaven.) Shias, deemed rafida (“rejectionists”) for siding with the losing side in a schism dating back 1,300 years, are particularly hated.
In vain Mr Maqdisi appealed to Zarqawi to stop slaughtering Shias with suicide bombs in marketplaces. When he persisted, Mr Maqdisi recalled how Zarqawi had been a drug-injecting low-life whom he had introduced to the basics of Islam in the prison cell they shared in the 1990s. Mr Maqdisi called on IS to spare the American and British civilians they beheaded. At his trial in Amman, where he was released, Abu Qatada, called IS khawarij, or “rebels”, for twisting Islamic precepts.
In an attempt to claw back his authority, Mr Maqdisi has revamped his website, the Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad, and reformed his Sharia council, grouping a dozen or so clerics from Mauritania to Yemen. Some fighters are still listening. When the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front, captured 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers on the border with Israel, Mr Maqdisi issued a fatwa which led the captors to release the hostages. The group’s own spiritual guide, Sami Uraydi, sat on Mr Maqdisi’s council.
IS treats these ideologues mostly as has-beens; by its brutal methods it has seized a population and territory the size of Jordan. On social media younger jihadists ridicule them as armchair-bound pen-pushers who dare not risk their lives in battle, says Joas Wagemakers, author of a book on Mr Maqdisi. “I don’t do explosives,” Mr Maqdisi readily admits.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader who last summer proclaimed himself Caliph, not only fights but claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad and holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies from Mustansiriya University in Baghdad (in jail in Iraq, he acted as mentor to Mr Maqdisi’s son, Omar, who was later killed). Mr Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, by contrast, have no academic titles, are largely self-taught in prison, and quote not just from the Koran but also from Dan Brown’s Vatican thriller, “The Da Vinci Code”. “It shows how religious states work,” says Mr Maqdisi.
Earlier this year IS and the Nusra Front fought battles that cost many lives and diverted energies and arms away from the main enemy, the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. Mr Baghdadi was delusional, crowed his detractors, a wannabe Messiah protected by former goons and Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s entourage. Mr Maqdisi egged the detractors on, denouncing IS in his “war of letters”. In July, after IS captured Mosul and pushed towards Jordan’s borders, Jordan released Mr Maqdisi from prison, perhaps hoping to have secured a new ally.
But America’s coalition of Western and Arab Sunni allies against IS prompted many jihadist preachers to rethink their priorities. Several left Jordan along with hundreds of followers to defend IS’s caliphate against the new alliance of “Crusaders and Kaffirs”. Reports of coalition bombs on civilian targets such as flour-mills wins more converts. “Many people now view the coalition as waging war on Islam, not extremism,” says Usama Shehadeh, a Quietist preacher in Amman who fears he is losing his flock. Leaders of Jordan’s mainstream Muslim Brotherhood admit that they are struggling to rein in their followers.
After dithering, Mr Maqdisi earlier this month called on bickering jihadist groups to be reconciled and defend Islam against the coalition. Arab rulers (including Jordan’s King Abdallah II) who joined non-Muslims to fight Muslims were apostates, he opined. On October 27th Jordan again jailed Mr Maqdisi. Judicial authorities have announced their intention to put Abu Qatada back on trial. As the war intensifies and the mood darkens, any hope that the release of the two ideologues would sow division among extremists is giving way to fear that they could help unite the ranks around the black flag of jihad.
From the print edition: Middle East and Africa The Economist