Escalation In Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) Demonization Of Jihadi Ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, As HTS Cleric Accuses Him Of Extremism, Ignorance

August 25, 2020

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Jordan-based jihadi ideologue Essam Al-Barqawi, aka Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, is simultaneously one of the most influential and controversial figures in the Salafi-jihadi world. The jihadi ideologue presents himself as the standard-bearer for the Salafi-jihadi concept of monotheism and enjoys a wide following among Al-Qaeda fighters and in various other arenas, having voiced support for Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, Yemen, and additional countries. Al-Maqdisi has also been an outspoken critic of rival jihadi groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS), which he denounced as early as 2015,[1] and Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).

Al-Maqdisi's criticism of HTS, which he accuses of compromising and "diluting" its Salafi-jihadi principles to appease Western countries and its patron, Turkey, began after the group's leader, Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, split from Al-Qaeda in 2016, but has intensified over time.[2] The Jordan-based jihadi cleric has declared since early 2019 that HTS is contributing to the demise of the Syrian jihad, and after fighting broke out between HTS and Al-Qaeda-aligned fighters in late June 2020, Al-Maqdisi published an article titled "The Predicament of the Supporters of the Shari'a between the Factions which Collaborate and are Used," urging the Al-Qaeda-aligned fighters to concede defeat and declaring that the jihad in Syria can only be salvaged if HTS is eliminated.[3]

As tensions between HTS and Al-Qaeda persist in Syria, Al-Maqdisi has continued to denounce HTS and has forwarded posts on his Telegram channel accusing HTS of various injustices and aggressions against its opponents.[4] It should be noted that, unlike some pro-Al-Qaeda clerics, Al-Maqdisi's condemnation of HTS has not reached the point of declaring takfir on the group (i.e. claiming it is an apostate group whose members may be killed).[5]

Although Al-Maqdisi is a harsh critic of ISIS and concurs with the designation of "Khawarij"[6] that other opponents of ISIS use to denigrate the organization, he has exhibited a more tolerant attitude than many jihadi clerics toward those suspected of belonging to ISIS, and has advocated on behalf of female relatives of ISIS operatives whom the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have detained in internment camps in eastern Syria.[7]

Al-Maqdisi's harsh condemnation of HTS has led supporters of the Syrian jihadi group to mount a campaign on social media against the ideologue, accusing him of extremism, referring to him as the "sheikh of the Khawarij," and even alleging that he cooperates with Jordanian intelligence. For years, HTS supporters on social media have written posts criticizing Al-Maqdisi, but this criticism seems to have escalated since late June, after the publication of Al-Maqdisi's article, referred to above, which asserts that HTS presents an insurmountable barrier to the success of the Syrian jihad as long as it continues its current policies. The Al-Bayyinah Foundation, a media group devoted to condemning clerics who oppose HTS, which was active in 2019, resumed its activity on June 30, 2020, and has since almost exclusively published condemnations of Al-Maqdisi.

Another sign of the escalation in the HTS attitude toward Al-Maqdisi is the publication of a recent article by HTS religious official Muzhir Al-Ways which scathingly condemns the pro-Al-Qaeda ideologue, demonstrating that condemnation of Al-Maqdisi has developed from haphazard social media posts by HTS supporters to articulated treatises from the group's officials.

The concerted campaign to demonize Al-Maqdisi is presumably motivated by the cleric's prominent status in the Salafi-jihadi world and the real threat that HTS fighters, many of whom may still consider him an authority, will defect from the group. Delegitimizing Al-Maqdisi by presenting him as an extremist and equating him with ISIS, whose illegitimacy is a point of consensus among all other Salafi-jihadi groups, leaves non-Al-Qaeda mujahideen in Syria free to accept the authority of other clerics, whether in Syria or in other countries, such as Al-Maqdisi's rival, Jordan-based Abu Qatadah Al-Filastini, whose view of HTS is much more positive.

The HTS need to delegitimize Al-Maqdisi demonstrates the group's ideological weakness as part of the global Salafi-jihadi movement and its fear that it may lose its legitimacy in the eyes of Salafi-jihadi fighters in Syria – both members of HTS and of other jihadi factions. The demonization of Al-Maqdisi is part of the HTS general campaign against the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Syria, which has been ongoing since the end of June 2020. As a result of the unrelenting HTS persecution of Al-Qaeda-aligned fighters and its delegitimization of Al-Qaeda religious authorities, it now appears that the gap between Al-Qaeda and HTS, itself an outgrowth of Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusrah, is unbridgeable.

The above is the logo of the Al-Bayyinah Foundation, which criticizes anti-HTS clerics.

Al-Ways' condemnation of Al-Maqdisi, titled "The Monotheism of Barqawism," was posted on August 22, 2020, as a series of Tweets on the HTS cleric's Twitter account and was compiled into an article and distributed by the Al-Bayyinah Foundation on Telegram the following day.[8] Al-Ways unfavorably compares Al-Maqdisi's self-portrayal as a champion of monotheism to other individuals and groups whose beliefs are rejected by Salafis, such as the medieval Mu'tazilah  sect, the Almohads, and the Druze, claiming that they described themselves as "monotheists" in order to place themselves above mainstream Sunnis, declare takfir on them, and sanction killing them. The HTS religious official accuses Al-Maqdisi of having similar motives, claiming that his "narcissism and delusion" lead him to proclaim himself the defender of Islamic monotheism in order to promote his "extremism in takfir" and declare his opponents apostates from Islam.

Al-Ways asserts that Islamic scholars have placed "heavy controls" on employing takfir to prevent the misuse of this dangerous practice, allowing only the most qualified clerics who have already become proficient in all areas of Islamic law to decide questions of takfir. The HTS religious official alleges that Al-Maqdisi and other extremist clerics, whom he accuses of ignorance, require their followers to decide such weighty matters before mastering the basics of Islamic law, telling them that declaring takfir on individuals or groups is a basic obligation without which one's belief is not complete.

Al-Ways further accuses Al-Maqdisi and his ilk of practicing taqiyah (i.e. concealing his true beliefs) by using accusations of "betrayal," "deviation," and "dilution," rather than takfir, to condemn their opponents, knowing full well that such accusations are bound to lead their followers to fight and kill their adversaries, after which they will disingenuously claim that they never declared those opponents to be unbelievers or justified killing them.

The HTS cleric continues his demonization of Al-Maqdisi by accusing those he refers to as extremist clerics of combining "ignorance of the shari'a with ignorance of the reality," claiming that they have "isolated themselves from people," forcing them to rely on "the speech of news broadcasts and [social media] accounts and on their feeble analyses of events" to find out what is happening in various arenas. These clerics' reliance on second-hand reports of events, as well as their "hatred, whims, hidden arrogance, delusion, and foolishness" leads them, according to Al-Ways, to base their pronouncements on an "accursed bloody mixture of scenarios which are far from the intellect, shari'a, and reality."

The HTS religious official writes that he would have preferred not to have to "refute the false claims of this misguided sect" but was forced to do so, to ensure that his silence not be understood as acquiescence to their words. He concludes his article with the hope that "just as the strife [caused by] ISIS was extinguished and its pride was cut down, may the strife [caused by] those who walk on its path be extinguished, and may [Allah] keep our brethren, the mujahideen, steadfast and spare them from strife."

The above image depicts the cover of Al-Ways' article condemning Al-Maqdisi, as published by the Al-Bayyinah Foundation.


[6] Khawarij/Kharijites were an early Islamic sect that advocated excommunicating Muslims for even minor sins and were proclaimed heretical by mainstream Sunnis. Today the term is used by critics of ISIS to brand them as extremists who are beyond the pale of legitimate Islam.

[8], August 22, 2020; Al-Bayyinah Foundation – Private, August 23, 2020.

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