- The Islamic State has always had serious theological disputes within its ranks
- Leadership tried to paper over the cracks, usually unsuccessfully
- If unresolved, this may lead to an IS breakup
The Islamic State has a record of fighting almost as much with its supposed allies, and even within itself, as it does against its enemies in the West.
Cole Bunzel, a research fellow at Yale Law School and an expert on the jihadi movement, has been studying these trends and earlier this year published some of his findings.
As early as 2013, ISIS fell out with al-Qaeda. It soon condemned the Taliban and Jabhat Al Nusra, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, as insufficiently pure in their Islam and accused them of tolerating ‘polytheism’ by not condemning many traditional Islamic practices such as the veneration of saints. In return, al -Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and others branded ISIS “extremists.”
Less well known, and perhaps more surprisingly, similar disputes broke out within ISIS itself. Strict secrecy and fierce discipline within the organization kept this out of the public eye. Gradually, leaked documents and other sources have begun to tell the story, Bunzel reported.
It all comes back to the Wahhabi tradition within Sunni Islam, which takes a much harder line than mainstream Sunni thinking, he said. Wahhabism uncritically condemns as ‘polytheism’ any traditional Islamic practices such as saint and shrine veneration, and even voting in elections. Crucially, it is not just the act itself that is the problem but showing insufficient zeal in condemning others who tolerate such things.
Such stringent views can be traced to some of the early preachers who appeared on the scene in the wake of the Arab Spring, such as Ahmad al-Hazimi, who was active in Tunisia. Whilst not a jihadi himself, he gained the support of one of the leadership actions within the emerging Islamic State. This was opposed by others who saw that the excommunications would never end.
In 2015 evidence emerged that this phase of the dispute had been brought to an end by a round of arrests, executions and banishments, Bunzel continued. But the dispute flared up again between ideologues taking the strictest line against the slightest deviations, and those who placed more value on other traditional Islamic teachings, such as not excommunicating a fellow Muslim without good cause.
While all this was going on, airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition continued to pick off the individual leaders. This disrupted the committees and working groups within IS that were trying to find compromise. Eventually a position emerged in 2017 that, while condemning the “extremists” who wanted to excommunicate anyone seen as too tolerant, nonetheless warned against the “moderates.” This led to a strong backlash from important Islamic scholars within IS. They complained that, for some, any Muslim outside the territory of IS was not necessary to be regarded as Muslim at all. Some of these scholars were also taken out by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, although some of their supporters suspected that they had been killed at the direction of their ideological opponents.
The head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, eventually got involved in 2017, when it became clear that the Islamic scholars and their supporters might abandon IS altogether. He called a meeting between representatives of both sides and decided to act by retracting some of the more extreme directives and dissolving the committee that produced them. Some of those involved were arrested and even executed. New pronouncements and an audio series were promised and began to appear, which tried to clarify these theological matters and take a middle ground. However, as the year drew on, some of the scholars began to complain that the reaction had been half-hearted. By the end of the year there had once again been a clamp down on the scholars, and some of the old extremists had been rehabilitated. The view seems to be that al-Baghdadi was papering over the dispute rather than resolving it, Bunzel found, and it is possible that, if unresolved, it may eventually lead to the breakup of the movement.
“In trying to alienate neither side, al-Baghdadi seems to have disappointed both,” Bunzel wrote. “The relative extremists became resentful of the official position… while the relative moderates became upset with him for tolerating the extremists.”
Bunzel’s view is that the dispute is still not resolved. The recent dramatic loss of ISIS territory only served to intensify these theological debates, as members of the group sought to challenge its strategy and policy. In the case of IS, this begins with its theological orientation. In 2018, al-Qaeda could even be seen reaching out trying to attract more ‘moderate’ supporters away from IS, but so far it seems these potential recruits have not yet given up on ISIS.