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Losing Faith In Al-Baghdadi – Part I: Islamic State Supporters Openly Criticize, Renounce Al-Baghdadi And The 'Caliphate'

By: R. Green*

In recent months, there have been signs of waning commitment on the margins of the Islamic State (ISIS) to the ideological underpinnings of the movement, revealed through doubts as to whether the caliphate is legitimate, and whether its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is the rightful leader of Muslims worldwide. This erosion of commitment is  caused by internal disputes and struggles, and linked to the loss of territory and the setbacks on the battlefield faced by the group. However the main cause appears to be the ongoing ideological dispute within ISIS. This erosion a has appeared on both sides of the controversy – in the dissident "scholars' camp," comprised of former officials in the now-defunct ISIS religious bureaucracy, and among the "extremists" or ultra takfiris (those with a propensity to proclaim other Muslims as unbelievers). The ideological dispute exacerbated and brought to the surface criticism regarding lack of competence and injustice on the part of the ISIS leadership. 

In the past, detractors and dissenters were careful to refrain from criticizing Al-Baghdadi personally, and declared that they were firm in their loyalty to ISIS, ascribing the faults in the organization to those he appointed to carry out his orders, namely the 'governors' of Syria and Iraq,[1] and the members of the Delegated Committee (the top ISIS executive body). ISIS members are bound by their oath of allegiance to obey all directives, unless the ‘caliph’ commits a clear transgression against the Islamic faith, and reneging on this oath is highly problematic from a religious standpoint. However, developments in recent months have led to criticism of, and a lack of faith in, Al-Baghdadi himself and the ISIS project as a whole.

This report will be presented in two parts. The first will provide examples of supporters of the "scholars' camp" expressing their disillusionment, and the second part will present an example of an extremist who explains why he left ISIS entirely.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi


At the heart of the ideological dispute which serves as the backdrop to the erosion of commitment to Al-Baghdadi is the issue of takfir, the proclaiming that other Muslims are unbelievers. Since its declaration as a caliphate, ISIS has seen internal struggles as extremists in the organization attempted to promote their hardline approach to takfir. As ISIS is a religious entity, such theological disputes can have real political consequences – a quest for religious purity can quickly transform into a rebellion. The ideological argument escalated in the spring and summer of 2017, after the Delegated Committee, whose members are in essence Al-Baghdadi's deputies, issued a memo on takfir which took a harsher stand than any official document ever espoused until that point. In effect, the memo constituted a shift toward the positions of the ultra-takfiris. It presented takfir as a fundamental principal of Islam, and supported the idea that one who does not proclaim takfir about a person who deserves the designation must be proclaimed an infidel himself. [2]

The memo was eventually retracted, following a heated debate among the organization's scholars and followers. However, this controversy further polarized the two camps within ISIS, creating an even wider rift between the relatively 'moderate' group, dominated by the scholars and officials who served in the ISIS religious bureaucracy and are critical of the organization's leadership, and the opposing camp, which espouses more ‘extremist’ tendencies. The prominent elements in this camp are members of the ISIS central Media Department which is backed by the political and military leadership, and whose "enforcers" are the members of the internal security apparatus. On the margins of this camp is an even more intractable group of hardliners, which, disaffected by the retraction of the memo, and other issues they view as shortcomings in matters of faith, disconnected from ISIS, but remains in its orbit. And despite the official revocation of the memo, the influence of the extremist camp remains strong, especially among powerful figures in the Media Department.[3]

Two Major Developments Lead Scholars' Camp To Lose Faith In Al-Baghdadi

The supporters of the scholars' camp were taken aback by two major developments, which led some to lose faith in Al-Baghdadi. The first was the injunction in his most recent speech directing his followers to view the ISIS principal media apparatus, the Central Media Department, which is identified with the 'extremists', as its sole reliable source of information. The second development is the ongoing persecution and imprisonment of scholars associated with the scholars' camp, some of whom were killed in prison, by ISIS internal security apparatus.

Addressing his followers worldwide in August 2018, Al-Baghdadi said: "As for you, supporters of the caliphate everywhere in the media and in the field, we bring you glad tidings that the State is well, since it wishes for what Allah has to offer, which is good and everlasting. Do not be frightened by the deliberate campaign of deception and defamation. The enemy has enlisted centers and organizations and a large number of fools. Beware, oh lions of communications and knights of media, beware not to glean your information from any source besides the State's central media [apparatus]. Renew your pledge and increase your sacrifices and divert the Islamic State's [enemies] from fighting it. Indeed, today the battle is in your arena, and you have been spared other battles, while your brothers are preoccupied [with fighting]. So shield them and provide them with support and aid."[4]

The supporters of the scholars' camp oppose the media apparatus, as they see it as a bastion of extremism. Until Al-Baghdadi proclaimed his directive, they were able to cling to the belief that he was neutral or somehow "above" the ideological dispute. But hearing Al-Baghdadi give unequivocal support to the Central Media Department made it clear that he was siding with the extremist camp.

Abu Bakr Al-Gharib, leading figure in the ISIS Media Department, member of the extremist faction

The second major development that dismayed the scholars' camp was the crackdown on prominent scholars. In recent months, several scholars have been arrested, abused, tortured, and even executed by the security apparatus (see below).

And yet, some in the more moderate scholars' camp justified the stance taken by Al-Baghdadi, reasoning that he was influenced by the clique surrounding him, which has de facto control of ISIS, while the leader himself is a mere figurehead. Therefore, they directed their ire at the members of this select group, the majority of whom are Iraqis who are members of the Delegated Committee and ‘governors’ of Iraq and Syria.[5] Most notable among these senior figures are the veteran Iraqi leaders, Hajj Abdallah, the head of the Delegated Committee, and Hajj Hamed, the 'governor' of Syria, who together are nicknamed the "Hajis" or "Hajajis."[6] However, media outlets associated with the scholars' have continued to publish texts and archival materials of the scholars' teachings, in what is effectively an act in defiance of Al-Baghdadi's directive. These include most prominently Al-Wafa' Foundation and Al-Turath Al-'Ilmi (the scholarly heritage) Foundation. The former has been operating since 2014 as an outlet for publishing articles, essays and books by ISIS scholars. The latter began operating in late 2017 as an outlet meant to publish mainly archival texts authored by the scholars of ISIS's religious establishment, which were banned from publication for one reason or another. Al-Turath Al-'Ilmi also publishes updates and information concerning scholars identified with the scholars' camp. Another online venue associated with this camp is the Telegram chat group "Constructive Criticism among the People of Islam" [Al-Naqd Al-Bana' Bayna Ahl Al-Islam], where members regularly discuss their grievances against ISIS leadership and criticize what they see as ideological deviance on part of the extremist elements within the organization.

Criticism Of Al-Baghdadi's Lack Of Leadership From The Scholars' Camp

Criticism of Al-Baghdadi from the scholars' camp is not confined to the ideological realm. Its dissident members also lambast him for his lack of leadership – as expressed in what they view as his abandonment of the troops on the ground and their families, which are being forced out of Syrian towns. The dissenters have harsh words for Al-Baghdadi for allowing the clique surrounding him to isolate him from his men, while it conducts the organization's affairs as it sees fit. And this leads to another matter that ignites their outrage – the persecution of the scholars as part of a campaign led, they claim, by the "Hajis."

Luminaries of the scholars' camp as featured in a banner published by the Al-Turath Al-'Ilmi Foundation.  Left to right: Abu Malik Al-Tamimi, Abu Muslim Al-Masri, Abu Ali Al-Anbari, Abu 'Abd Al-Barr Al-Kuwaiti, Turki Al-Bin'Ali, Abu Bakr Al-Qahtani, Abu Hafs Al-Shami

The main criticisms from the scholars' camp can be summarized as ideological resentment in light of Al-Baghdadi's support of the Media Department; lack of leadership in the face of the fierce fighting and bombing at ISIS strongholds – expressed by the abandonment of soldiers and their families; Al-Baghdadi's "disappearance" and handing over de facto leadership of ISIS to the clique that surrounds him and the security apparatus; and finally, Al-Baghdadi's choice to ignore the persecution and imprisonment of scholars, which resulted in their deaths when the prisons where they were held were bombed by the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

Logo of the Telegram chat group 'Constructive Criticism Among the People of Islam'

Online Criticism Of Al-Baghdadi From ISIS Supporter: "Fear Allah, Oh Caliph!"

Following Al-Baghdadi's speech on August 22, 2018, one disillusioned supporter who calls himself Yaktum Imanahu took to Telegram to vent his disappointment with Al-Baghdadi for failing to address the wrongdoings of his deputies, whom he refers to as Al-Baghdadi's "henchmen:"

"We waited – perhaps, perhaps, perhaps we will spot a ray of hope shining on the horizon. Maybe the caliph will finally comprehend. However, the caliph continues to [act] as though he knows and doesn't know at the same time...

"You speak of fighting, and of persevering in it. Yet it is the mujahideen who are not spared from your tormentors who are on the frontlines, whereas we don't see any trace of you, not in fending off the corruptors and not in reforming their corruption.

"What should the soldier persevere against? Meeting the enemy or meeting your henchmen? What do you mean by 'splitting the ranks?' Should those who offer advice and condemn [wrongdoing] and correct be accused of splitting the ranks? Did we not commit to speaking truth without fearing the reproach of critics as part of our pledge of allegiance to you, oh caliph? Shouldn't handing over command to those who are not qualified for it be considered splitting the ranks and squandering trust?...

"Fear Allah, oh caliph, and be aware of that which your entourage has corrupted, before it's too late. Fear Allah..."[7]

In another post, Yaktum Imanahu comments that in his latest speech Al-Baghdadi makes it clear that he is not merely a figurehead, but that he embraces the 'extremist' positions and actively promotes them, and that he is responsible for the difficult situation the fighters face on the battlefield: "

"It caused us grief and pain when he said: 'We are in the best situation'... Yes, oh caliph, you are well. You and your ministers and the people who work for you are in the best situation. As for the soldiers: they have been disturbed, terrified and impoverished by the people who work for you.

"The soldiers, instead of praying for their rulers, have begun to curse them due to their mistreatment. Do you know, oh caliph of ours, that the honorable local and foreign fighters feel humiliation in the land of the caliphate? Do you know that the widows of the martyrs have reached a situation in which they are gathering scraps of meat from the butchers to satiate their hunger? There are many stories. Perhaps you are aware of them, as long as you are certainly aware of everything. All this is due to you being absent from your subjects and appointing fools, people of ignorance and tribal partisanship. By Allah, we will be your rivals on the Day of Resurrection and we will argue against you in front of Allah, since you betrayed your trust, and this is what we attest to and hold true in front of Allah. You have abandoned us, deceived the mujahideen – both locals and foreigners, who have sold their worldly affairs for the sake of Allah's religion and to be bricks in the castle of the caliphate. But their hopes were dashed and their dreams crushed..."[8]

ISIS Supporter: "The Imam Has Vanished"

A Telegram user called 'Ala Madhhab Al-Tabanjah criticized Al-Baghdadi for ignoring the persecution of scholars, wondering whether Al-Baghdadi was merely a figurehead. He urged Al-Baghdadi to amend the wrongs done by his deputies, warning him that otherwise he will face God's punishment in the afterlife: "In the shadow of these momentous events, which rattle the heart and the soul, as arbitrary campaigns of arrest reach one scholar after another, the imam [Al-Baghdadi] has vanished and the name of the caliph is hidden!

"Death surrounds us from all directions: the infidels surround us above the land and tragedy is under it! Yet most of those who sought jihad and heeded your call, oh Commander of the Faithful, their back was broken due to you fleeing from them and hiding from their grievances! You abandoned the Muslims, leaving them with no rights, tired, hungry, or persecuted, abused by dogs amongst mankind, the most despicable, foolish and boorish of men! ... You left them to their fate. When will you do justice to the oppressed ones, oh Commander, and when will you give the oppressor what he deserves? You took the reins of leadership, and our masses pledged allegiance to you [on condition you would abide by Allah's truth], so do not let us down!...

"Amend what your agents have corrupted, oh Commander of the Faithful, may Allah correct your ways you and send you a righteous entourage, before you will meet Allah with a censured face, while He is angry with you and renounces you. Injustice, a delay in investigating it, and delegating the handling of the grievances to the unjust, oppressive Hajjis may lead you to perdition!"

Member Of Chat Group Associated With The Scholars' Camp: "I Renounced [ISIS] And Its Leaders Before Allah"

On November 28, 2018, Al-Turath Al-'Ilmi Foundation, associated with the 'scholars' camp', reported the deaths of three scholars in the bombing of an ISIS security apparatus prison in Al-Kashmah, one of the last ISIS strongholds, that was allegedly carried out by the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.[9] Shortly after that incident, on December 4, 2018, it reported that a prominent scholar Abu Ya'qub Al-Maqdisi had been executed.  

Responding to these developments, members of the Telegram group "Constructive Criticism among the People of Islam" [Al-Naqd Al-Bana' Bayna Ahl Al-Islam] had harsh words for Al-Baghdadi. In one post on the group, a member who calls himself Al-Shalubin speculated whether Al-Baghdadi himself ordered the execution of the scholars.

Aftermath of the bombing of the ISIS prison in which several scholars were killed. ISIS Alleges that the bombing was carried out by the global anti-ISIS coalition. The image is from a video released by ISIS news agency A'maq, which did not acknowledge that the scholars were also held in the building.

In another post on the group channel, in response to a member who defended ISIS and its leadership, Al-Shalubin wrote: "Brother, we considered [ISIS] a caliphate upon the methodology of the prophethood, due to all of its flashy propaganda released by its media apparatus led by [Abu Muhammad] Al-Furqan.[10] However, the truth has been exposed. As for myself, I renounced it and its leaders before Allah."

The disillusioned ISIS supporter Yaktum Imanahu also directed scathing words toward Al-Baghdadi on Telegram: "We were devastated by the news of the death of a large number of jihad fighters and scholars who were imprisoned by the 'department of fear' [a play of words of the department of security] in the bombing of the coalition on the location of their prison... The 'caliph of the Muslims' did not ask about their blood, nor did his agents, may they receive [the punishment] they deserve from Allah...

"After this event, oh Ibn 'Awad [a reference to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi[11]], will we see you hold the governor of Syria accountable? Or will you hold accountable the governor 'Abd Al-Muhayman or the previous one, 'Abd Al-Ghani, or the deputy governor Abu Fir'aoun,[12] the former head of the internal security apparatus? Or will you hold the [current] head of security Abu Jihad Al-Shawi accountable? Will we see these men hung and put on display or at least censured, as was done with the weak ones [the imprisoned scholars]?... By Allah, I don't think you will do so. By Allah, you are the one in charge, and they [the dead scholars] are your rivals [on the Day of Resurrection] – yours, before your henchmen..."[13]

Image commemorating Muhammad Mahmoud aka Abu Osama Al-Gharib, Austrian national and one of the prominent members of the scholars' camp who was killed in the ISIS security apparatus prison on November 28, 2018.

Another member of the Telegram group nicknamed Jallad Al-Sahawat [Killer of the Anti-ISIS Militias] also lashed out at Al-Baghdadi: "Oh Ibn 'Awad! The Islamic ummah shall be your rival on the Day of Resurrection, so prepare an answer for it. The emigrants came from across the land to see the light of Allah, but your tormentors did this to them. The ummah sacrificed blood and martyrs... The [Islamic] State was established on the blood of the Muslims. We complain to Allah. We see your State spreading[14] in falsehood, so conduct an examination of yourself before it's too late..."[15]

Abu Hafs Al-Hamdani, aka Abu Hafs Al-Yamani, one of the clerics killed in the ISIS security apparatus prison on November 28, 2018


[2] For more on the takfir controversy see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis no. 1324, Dispute On Takfir Rocks ISIS, August 4, 2017.

[3] For more on the tensions surrounding the extremist camp's takeover of the Media Department, see MEMRI JTTM report: French Member Of ISIS Internal Security Sabri Essid Allegedly Executed By ISIS 'Extremist Faction', February 28, 2018.

[5] For more on the  claims that Al-Baghdadi has been sidelined by his Iraqi deputies, see MEMRI JTTM reports Islamic State Supporter Criticizes Leadership In Series Of Scathing Articles, Decries "Iraqization" Of Leadership And "Exclusion" Of Al-Baghdadi From Decision Making, August 6, 2018.

[6] The dissidents label these men 'the Hajajis' after Al-Hajaj bin Youssef the governor of Iraq under the Umayyad caliphate, notorious for his harsh rule.

[7], August 24, 2018.

[8], August 26, 2018.

[9] For more on the death of the scholars, see Austrian ISIS Operative Muhammad Mahmoud Reportedly Killed In Coalition Airstrike On ISIS Prison, November 28, 2018. The spokesman for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS denied that it had bombed an ISIS prison:

[10] Abu Muhammad Al-Furqan, whose real name Dr Wa'il Adel Hasan Salman al-Fayad, founded ISIS's propaganda apparatus. He is nicknamed after the main organ in that apparatus, Al-Furqan media foundation, which produces the speeches of ISIS leaders and other important videos. He was killed in an airstrike conducted by the U.S. in September 2016. Members of the scholars' camp have a negative view of him. They see him as an extremist who pushed for excessive application of takfir.

[11] Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi's full name is Ibrahim Ibn 'Awad Ibn Ibrahim Al-Badri

[12] Abu Fir'aoun – this is clearly a slur, Abu Pharaoh, not the person's real nickname.

[13], November 29, 2018.

[14] An allusion to the ISIS slogan 'Remaining and Will Spread.'

[15] Majmou'at Al-Naqd Al-Bana' bayna Ahl Al-Islam, November 29, 2018.