ISIS Sinai "repentance sessions" with kidnapped Egyptian Sufis
Terrorist groups respond to great pressure in different ways. Some abandon the violent struggle and turn to politics; others double down on violence. Some attempt to add an appearance of nuance or diversity to a continuing violent struggle. In the Middle East, two of the offspring of Al-Qaeda are trying contrasting approaches – while both remaining brutal Salafi-jihadis.
Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch continues to try to reinvent itself, adopting a broad-front approach with similar groups to widen its appeal. This approach has gone so far as to provoke a negative reaction from some of jihadism's prominent guardians of orthodoxy. Al-Qaeda in the African Sahel has, while not going as far as in Syria, recently attempted to give the appearance of greater diversity as it seeks to drive farther south into West Africa.
But if Al-Qaeda is burrowing in for the long haul and blurring its hard edges, the Islamic State (ISIS) continues to go for broke. While ISIS in its core heartland of Iraq and Syria is mostly concerned with the battlefield while it fights for survival, ISIS Sinai recently used a video to underscore another part of the ISIS appeal – one tied to its purity, authenticity and zeal in scrupulously implementing their version of Islamic law (in fact, the video is called "The Light of Sharia").
As with most ISIS propaganda videos of this type, it opens with the general – condemnation of Egypt's rulers and leaders, scenes of corruption, secularism, social ills, before moving to images of ISIS's work in the field regionwide – and proceeds to a specific description of the local reality. It concludes with the money shot of ritualized slaughter.
The 29-minute video, released March 28, 2017, is mostly about documenting the work of their "morals police" as it aggressively and openly enforces Islamic law in parts of Sinai controlled by the group. This is grounded in the Quranic admonition of "enjoining the good and forbidding what is wrong." ISIS's "accountability" (Al-Hisba) police is their even sterner version of the Saudi Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice that is tasked with implementing Salafi standards of morality. This work is contrasted with the supposed reality of Egyptian officials – both lay and religious – who are allegedly "allowing vice and forbidding virtue."
The video graphically shows the scope of the ISIS Sinai moral policing, including uprooting tobacco plants, destroying narcotics, blowing up Sufi shrines, destroying graves with pickaxes, destroying television sets and satellite dishes with mallets, and kidnapping Sufi Muslims and haranguing them and getting them to "repent," and ending by beheading "sorcerers" who practice divination.
As with many such presentations, ISIS provides us with a young guide. "Abu Miqdad Al-Masri" is the Al-Hisba police spokesman providing commentary for the images we see. Al-Masri explains that the top priority for his office is eliminating shirk (polytheism or, ascribing partners to Allah) in Sinai by destroying "pagan practices." The principal practice left in a Sinai where no Christians remain is Sufism. He then segues to an even worse manifestation of shirk, which is sorcery and divination. In addition to providing Quranic condemnation of witchcraft, the narrator notes the command of the second of the Righteous Caliphs, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, to "kill every sorcerer and fortune teller."
Suleiman Abu Haraz, beheaded by ISIS for Sorcery
The video ends in dramatic fashion with the judgment and swift execution of two old men convicted of divination (al-kahana). The death sentence by the Islamic judge is announced upon Suleiman Nusbah Hamdan Abu Haraz and Ihtifal Braik Al-Mansur for the crime of ilm al-ghayb ("knowledge of the unknown") and al-kahana. A black SUV rapidly drives in and unloads its two orange-clad, bound prisoners, who are swiftly beheaded. The camera lovingly lingers on the spasmodic action of one of the severed heads.
Ihtifal Braik al-Mansur, beheaded by ISIS for sorcery
ISIS is trying to send several messages at the same time here. First, and most importantly, it is visually creating a perceived reality of actual governance. This is a group seemingly exercising power over territory, fully imposing its will upon a population, and doing so as "real" governments do, with police, judges, soldiers and laws. This is the most important point, that the video is about governance and how it challenges the authority of the Egyptian state. When the camera shows police uprooting tobacco plants, you also see young children happily joining in the game of pulling out the noxious growth.
Secondly, ISIS is teaching. It is teaching to a broader Arabic-speaking audience, exclusively relying on chapter and verse from the Quran, Hadiths, and Islamic history. Far from "defaming Islam," ISIS (and many of their jihadi rivals) are aggressively promoting a Salafi Islamic reading of religion and righteous action. The video is drenched in a solely religious justification for all of the actions shown. While Sufis are kidnapped and indoctrinated, you also see scenes of their repentance and their being welcomed back into the fold.
Thirdly, not only is ISIS teaching others, it is modelling sincerity by enveloping itself in this Salafi religious garb and in the zealous implementation of this worldview. They are not the only ones who killed witches to prove their devotion. Hundreds of years ago, this occurred in the Christian West. It still occurs at the hands of mobs in parts of the developing world at times, and today both Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda have also regularly executed people for practicing magic – and have done so because it burnishes their Islamic credentials. For ISIS and Al-Qaeda, these are well-attended public events that have occurred in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
All the actions portrayed in this video, from destroying television sets to beheadings, seek to underscore the public persona of an organization that is pure, authentic, and zealous, and that is responding to a religious imperative. It is a portrayal of complete virtue, ISIS modeling what it believes is Islam at its best and most authentic. If the Quran and Caliph Umar call for the killing of sorcerers, well, here we are doing precisely that to bring about a state where monotheism is truly exalted and error is exterminated!
It is easy to dismiss ISIS actions like those portrayed in this video (after all, even Saudi Arabia allows television sets and smoking) as marginal and extreme. There is a whole cottage industry in the West that seeks to portray ISIS as "un-Islamic." But the Islamic State has gone to the trouble of presenting its actions in excruciating detail because it believes that there is a real audience of Muslims that will find it attractive, and that with this propaganda, it can grow this audience. Videos such as this are not, after all, meant principally for Western audiences but for Middle Eastern ones.
This particular video also graphically illustrates three fronts of the ongoing battle against Salafi-jihadism. ISIS shows itself in control, and so must be uprooted militarily. It seeks to indoctrinate others, and so must be challenged ideologically precisely on the same premises upon which it bases itself. If it empowers itself by speaking of "enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong," in fighting shirk and in saying that Sufism is shirk, then those are concepts to be fought by someone. And since it uses media to portray itself as governing righteously, this is a dynamic struggle occurring online and in the media.
Much of the current debate is focused on the military dimension; a considerable amount is devoted to the online fight, and the question of indoctrination, or of ideology, is often given short shrift. And the ideological struggle is rather more complex than the cliché of "benighted Muslims need to get on board with modernity." We forget, at our peril, that Sunni Arab Muslim governments in the region are not only our allies. Their populations are the battlefields where the ideological fight is being fought, and has been fought before we even appeared on the scene.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.
 "Diluting Jihad: Tahrir al-Sham and the Concerns of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, jihadica.com, March 29, 2017.
 "Analysis: Merger of al Qaeda groups threatens security in West Africa," longwarjournal.org, March 18, 2017.
 "Fatwas of Ibn Baz," Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, alifta.net, no date.
 "Children abused, killed as witches in Nigeria," CNN.com, August 28, 2010.
 "Saudi Arabia's War on Witchcraft," theatlantic.com, August 19, 2013.
 MEMRI JTTM report AQAP Executes Three Men Accused Of Sorcery In Gail Bawazir, March 17, 2016.
 "The Politics of Muslim Magic," meforum.org, Spring 2013.