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By Sam Heller
Below we see Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) shar’i “Abu Azzam al-Najdi’s” frank rationale for leaving JMA to join the Islamic State (IS / ISIS). Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is a mostly foreign fighter battalion that has been active in Aleppo. It is best known for its Caucasian (e.g., Chechen) contingent, but it also counts Arabs among its ranks — it recently absorbed the heavily Saudi al-Katibah al-Khadra (the Green Battalion), and Abu Azzam’s nom du guerre indicates that he hails from the Najd (east Saudi Arabia). Abu Azzam had been JMA’s shar’i and, at least in Arabic media, its main fundraising point of contact. Saudi fundraiser and ideologue Abdullah al-Muheisini had recommended as late as April that any would-be foreign fighters should reach out specifically to Abu Azzam.
Abu Azzam defected to ISIS alongside a substantial chunk of al-Katibah al-Khadra, including its commander Omar Seif and at least one of its shar’is. (Seif had apparently just been detained by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front on suspicions, now vindicated, that he was linked to ISIS. Other jihadists intervened to broker his release.)
As can be seen below, there are a number of strains to Abu Azzam’s thinking, or at least what he’s willing to disclose of it. Some of it reads like picking a winner: on the one hand, an endorsement of ISIS’s success in building a functional Islamic state; on the other, disillusionment with the dysfunction of rebel-controlled areas and a clear distrust of non-jihadist rebels. The current U.S./Coalition campaign on ISIS apparently figures into his logic, too, pushing him to advocate jihadist solidarity with ISIS to better resist “the nations of disbelief.”
ISIS and pro-ISIS accounts have been crowing about successive jihadist defections to ISIS, doing everything they can to advertise ISIS’s continuing momentum. When it comes to drawing away foreign fighters, I suspect they’re right – Abu Azzam is not the first to defect to ISIS, and I doubt he’ll be the last.
I’ve been asked a lot about my reason for leaving [Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar] and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.
I would say, frankly, that no one has a successful plan to implement God’s law except the Islamic State. It has established Islamic courts and implemented the hudoud (Islamic criminal punishments) in its territory. Meanwhile, if we go and look at the other side, we find not only sincere battalions but also – on the same land – criminal battalions and apostate battalions supported by the military councils that call openly for the establishment of a democratic state. Then we fight on the fronts while they work behind us to carry out their projects and plots… Yes, there are those who work [at that], but they’ll never succeed – although only God knows – because of their division and fragmentation. Even the courts that have been established have seen what they’ve seen because of nepotism and what have you…
You might say that the [Islamic] State has made mistakes. I say that they themselves admit these mistakes, and they work to rectify them and hold accountable the responsible party. They’ve established Islamic courts and implemented the hudoud, so you see nothing here but the rule of Islamic law. Stores close at prayer time, women are modest in the markets, nobody sells cigarettes or anything else.
I say this is not the time for division with the Islamic state. The nations of disbelief have gathered against us, so we must come to [the Islamic State’s] aid. This is not the time for the division of “groups.” Rather, it is the time for solidarity and union.
Below are Abu Azzam’s original tweets:
Below we see Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar’s top shar’i “Mu’tasim Billah al-Madani” rebut the arguments of defected shar’i “Abu Azzam al-Najdi.” Mu’tasim Billah’s response is itself enlightening, insofar as it provides a window into how jihadists understand intra-rebel dynamics and their own legitimacy.
Since his defection to ISIS, former Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar shar’i Abu Azzam has continued to appeal to other jihadists to join him in what he argues is ISIS’s successful, coherent experiment of Islamic governance. He has emphasized ISIS’s most visible achievements, e.g., the implementation of the hudoud, a set of Islamic criminal punishments. He has also denigrated the dysfunction of rebel-held areas and the fact that “sincere” – that is, jihadist – fighters are sent to the fronts to be chewed up while crooks and agents of the West plot to undermine them.
Mu’tasim Billah answers by pointing to jihadists’ preferred model of Islamic law being implemented across northern Syria. In sharp contrast with the alarm of many inside and outside Syria over ISIS’s videotaped stoning of an allegedly adulterous woman in eastern Hama earlier this week, Mu’tasim Billah’s first example of God’s will being done is a stoning in Saraqeb (Idlib). He also provides a sort of map of northern jihadist areas of control, including many areas now administered by the Jabhat al-Nusrah-linked Dar al-Qadaa (Judiciary).
All of these examples flag a shift within Syria’s jihadist camp, one that seems driven by an evolving Jabhat al-Nusrah (also known as al-Qaeda in the Levant). Nusrah had previously adhered to a sort of jihadist minimalism, at least temporarily declining to implement harsh social codes like the hudoud and backing consensual structures that met a minimum level of Islamic legitimacy, such as the Aleppo Shari’ah Commission. Now, in a seeming attempt to shore up its own credibility and to retain the loyalty of jihadists who might otherwise defect to ISIS, Nusrah has been behaving more and more like circa-2013 ISIS. Nusrah is now engaging some less-reputable nationalist brigades with the same sort of sharp-elbows approach ISIS used in summer and fall of last year. It’s also begun to adopt a similar fast-forward approach to law and governance that is, arguably, religiously unsound in wartime.
Despite warnings from jihadist reformers like Nusrah’s Abu Mariyah al-Qahtani about the need for jihadist groups to purge “ghulaat” (extremists) from their ranks, Nusrah and other groups seem to have responded to ISIS’s ideological threat by becoming more like ISIS – catering to their own most extreme members by competing to implement Islamic rule here and now. That’s why we see Mu’tasim Billah mustering these examples when arguing with Abu Azzam; in an intra-jihadist argument, stonings are a badge of pride.
(Also of note: That the areas Mu’tasim Billah says are either under jihadist control or that of jihadists’ nationalist rebel frenemies like Jamal Ma’rouf are so discombobulated geographically is just further evidence of what a patchwork things are in the rebel north.)
I bring you good news…
The hudoud (Islamic criminal punishments) have begun to be implemented. The brothers in Saraqeb (Idlib) carried out a sentence of death by stoning…
You know that in the sincere brothers’ areas, they’re the ones in control. The Dar al-Qadaa (Judiciary) in Hreitan (Aleppo) and the surrounding area is what governs. And in Saraqeb, Sarmin, Sarmada, Harem, Salqin (all western Idlib), the coast (Lattakia) and Khan Sheikhoun (southern Idlib), the ones in control are our brothers.
[Liwa Shuhada Badr’s Khalid] Hayani doesn’t reach beyond [Aleppo neighborhood] Beni Zeid, [the Syrian Revolutionary Front’s Jamal] Ma’rouf is in Jebel al-Zawiyah (Idlib), and [Harakat] Hazm are in their areas…
Sam Heller is a Washington-based writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow him on Twitter: @AbuJamajem