ISIL executions
Islamic State fighters execute captured Iraqi Shia soldiers. Islamic State has shocked the world with its publicized brutality. PHOTO CREDIT: Middle East Eye.

The ascendancy of the Islamic State from a trivial Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq into a global jihadist organization that has dominated both the Middle-Eastern and North-African Islamist landscapes has puzzled Intelligence Agencies, International Organizations, and International Policy Makers alike. Nonetheless, understanding its rise within the historical perspective of Global Jihad and Al-Qaeda’s strategic projections to create a global caliphate would demystify most of the mysteries surrounding the Islamic State (also described as Daesh by its detractors). This is because the Islamic State arose from the ashes of one of the most extremist factions within Al-Qaeda – Jama`at al-Muslimin (JaM).

JaM formed the core matrix of Salafist-Jihadi ideologues – more radical than Al-Qaeda leaders – who would inspire the ethos of radicalization and brutal terror tactics presently being used by the Islamic State. Its main aims were to radicalize impressionable Muslims in the West, as well as maltreat and dehumanize their rivals (both combatants and non-combatants).

Islamic State in Iraq

The rise of the Islamic State in 2014 was unprecedented in both global and regional realms. This was principally due to its rapid ascendancy to military dominance over the Syria-Iraq Theater of War, its proto-state structure, and its ability to rapidly gain affiliates – mostly at the expense of its rival transnational Islamist-Jihadist organization, Al-Qaeda[1].

The Islamic State started off as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also abbreviated as ISIS if the Levant is substituted for the Arabic equivalent of Syria, al-Sham). The western world was instantaneously shocked and perplexed by the military successes of ISIL starting from February 2014 and culminating in its capture of Mosul in June 2014 whence it announced itself as the most dominant fighting force in both Iraq and Syria. Likewise, ISIL has horrified the world with its widely self-publicized brutality and savagery[2].

Prior to 2014, the concept of a global caliphate was advanced by Al-Qaeda[3], but even its most optimistic strategists considered it an implausible idea whose time had not arrived. To its realists, Al-Qaeda would advance its interests by tasking its jihadists to prioritize destroying the Near Enemy while Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) strategized on how to cripple the Far Enemy (which alludes to the West)[4]. For al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, then known as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), its focus on the “near enemy” would attract the ire of the “far enemy”. Its intense fight and transformation into ISIL permanently changed Iraqi and Syrian geopolitics.

The extreme feats accomplished by ISIL stunned everyone, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS itself (which interpreted their rapid successes as a series of Divine Miracles). Using its newfound international publicity – grounded on its spectacular military successes which were in turn founded on its uncompromising and intolerant Islamist ideology – the Islamic State projected itself as the only legitimate Islamic administration worthy of allegiance (Baay’ah)[5].

Armed ISIL convoy travelling to Syria from Iraq. PHOTO CREDIT: CNBC.

The self-declared Caliphate introduced a novelty in the global war against terror as the Islamic State quickly built state institutions and strengthened its judiciary. Its executive arm ensured that the borders of the nascent caliphate were protected and its population conformed to ISIL-approved Sharia law and the Islamic way of life[6]. Nonetheless, ISIL was considered as illegitimately extremist by Al-Qaeda, its parent organization – which then decided to expel it and disavow all associations (with ISIL)[7].

Even so, ISIL’s over-ambitiousness and hardline creeds were not new to al-Qaeda. In the 1990s, Al-Qaeda was grappling with a legion of hot-headed, insubordinate, impatient, and subversive Arabs in Afghanistan who proselytized their heterodox Caliphal doctrines[8]. This legion had already come together under the banner of Jama`at al-Muslimin (JaM), and it would experience a tragic rise to infamous prominence among jihadists prior to its anticipated and well-deserved downfall. JaM should not be confused with a related group, Takfir wal-Hijra, which shared the same ideologies but operated in a different Theater of Jihad[9].

In the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda sees the reincarnation of JaM, and is horrified that ISIL would provoke mass exterminations of Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. This explains Al-Qaeda’s determined opposition to the Islamic State which it (Al-Qaeda) considers to have established a heretical caliphate that would foreshadow the ultimate destruction of the Sunni communities in Mesopotamia and the Levant.

Muhammad ibn Isa ibn Musa al-Rifa`i

The most notable figure behind Jama`at al-Muslimin is Muhammad ibn Isa ibn Musa al-Rifa`i (noms de guerre Abu Hammam al-Filistini and Abu `Isa al-Rifa`i). He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who held Jordanian citizenship.

Muhammad al-Rifa`i was born in 1959 to Palestinian parents residing in the Jordanian town of al-Zarqa where he grew up. He attended Jordanian schools and graduated as a medical doctor from one of its universities. During his university years, he joined the Jordanian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn) where he began his Islamist activism. In the mid-1980s, al-Rifa`i relocated to Pakistan as part of the Arab Nusra (Support) Front for the Afghan Mujahideen. In Pakistan, he enrolled in Punjab University for a physiotherapy course and later worked in the medical field while also engaged in daa’wah (Islamic proselytization). It was during this time that he made acquaintances with prominent Islamist-jihadi leaders including Osama bin Laden [10] and a fellow Jordanian (of Palestinian descent, who also happened to be the most prominent Salafist scholar and jihadi expositor) Abdullah Yusuf Azzam[11].

After the collapse and subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, al-Rifa`i returned to Jordan where his obdurate beliefs – especially on the concept of Tawheed and the need for a Unitary Islamic Government – were at odds with the aspirations of the Jordanian Branch of the Muslim Brotherhood[12]. He ended up abandoning the Brotherhood (al-Ikhwān).

Al-Rifa`i would later link up with an ideologically compatible jihadist, Abu al-Muntasir, and together they would form al-Da`waah wal-Jihad organization whose Wahhabi-jihadist orientation alarmed the Jordanian Government which consequently countered (the organization) by suppressing it and then dismantling it. Still, Al-Rifa`i would proceed to propagate his Salafi-jihadi doctrines to the wider Jordanian public – mainly through distribution of the literature penned down by one of the chief strategists of Al-Qaeda, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

Al-Rifa`i passionately expounded on the obligation of Jordanian Muslims to violently oppose American military operations against Saddam Hussein of Iraq during the First Gulf War (also called the Persian Gulf War). The activities of al-Rifa`i during this period led Hasan Abu Haniyya to regard him as one of the principal architects of Jordanian Islamist-Jihadism. Not by surprise, the Jordanian authorities were increasingly alarmed by his (al-Rifai’s) activities, and they imprisoned him in 1992, alongside other prominent Jordanian jihadists. This occurred during the period of suppression of the seditious activities of Jaysh al-Muhammad (Army of Muhammad)[13].

After a four-month stint in a Jordanian prison, he was released, and (he) promptly went into exile in Peshawar, Pakistan. There, he found the Arab muhajiroun (also designated as Afghan-Arab Mujahideen) plagued with a leadership vacuum following the assassination of Abdullah Azzam by Russian agents[14].

Disorder Plagues the Muhajiroun

Afghan Mujahideen San Bernardino California Geopolitics Press
Wounded jihadi fighters from Afghanistan arrive in San Bernardino, California to receive medical treatment. PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia.

In 1992, the Afghan-Arab Mujahideen were plagued with a myriad of problems; chief among them being a leadership vacuum following Azzam’s assassination and the decision of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to place Osama bin Laden under house arrest owing to his opposition to the ruling al-Saud Dynasty. Abu al-Walid al-Misri – a prominent jihadist of Egyptian origin – later conceded that the Afghan-Arab mujahedeen were on the verge of disunion and organizational collapse in 1992 as several factions left Pakistan thereby demoralizing the remaining jihadists, as well as weakening the jihadist campaign against the Afghan tribal warlords[15].

Emergence of Jama`at al-Muslimin

It was in this environment that Jama`at al-Muslimin emerged when a group of Islamic Scholars (including al-Rifa`i) and Madrassa Students strove to expunge Jahiliyya (ignorance) – which they considered pervasive amongst the leadership of the Mujahideen. These Islamic Scholars and their erstwhile students deduced that the principal blunder made by the mujahedeen was to non-cohesively plunge into the Afghan theater of war, as their original disunion guaranteed eventual periodic infighting among them after the defeat of the Soviets.

This infighting, they concluded, went against one of the principal tenets of Sharia – that the Ummah is one unified body that must be led by a single administration under a leader who aspires to achieve the prime objective of subordinating the whole world under Islam. To actualize this aim, Abu `Uthman al-Filistini – a US citizen of Palestinian descent – working alongside Abu Ayyub al-Barqawi – a jihadi from Sudan – conceptualized that a Caliphate was needed, and a Caliph was thus needed to guide and rule the Caliphate[16]. The group decided to form Jama`at al-Muslimin to serve the dual purposes of strengthening the Ummah as well as serve as a vehicle for the actualization of the Khilafa. Muhammad ibn Isa ibn Musa al-Rifa`i was one of the founding Emirs of JaM; but Abu `Uthman al-Filistini was the principal force behind the new organization.

Selecting the Caliph

Uthman al-Filistini and Ayyub al-Barqawi had been the most prominent, vocal, and committed proponents of the need for a unitary Sharia-based administration that would unify the Ummah, besides ushering in the ultimate Salvation. As such, they were tasked with the duty of finding a caliph. The two enjoined al-Rifa`i in their quest for a caliph. Since a caliph must fulfill certain obligatory requirements –including belonging to the Qurayshi tribe, the two were forced to seek a caliph from among the Arabs in the Middle East, and they eventually settled on a Saudi National who was promptly arrested and jailed by the Saudi authorities who were fearful of having two centres of power in the kingdom. Meanwhile, al-Rifa`i journeyed to the United Kingdom to seek out the Caliph, and during his sojourn in Britain, he preached about Tawheed (Islamic Monotheism) and called on British Muslims to support him and his organization financially.

After months of a fruitless search, al-Filistini and al-Barqawi returned back to Peshawar where JaM was based. In Peshawar, al-Rifa`i’s acolytes – understanding that he was originally a Palestinian who had settled in Jordan – decided to investigate his genealogy, as it was well known that some Jordanians and Palestinians were direct descendants of Muhammed or members of his Quraysh tribe[17]. After a period of investigations, they found out that al-Rifa`i had indeed descended from the Qurayshi, and they recalled him to Peshawar. On 3rd April 1993, JaM declared al-Rifa`i as their Caliph (and renamed him Abu Isa Muhammad Ali ibn Ahmad Al-Hashimy Al-Qurayshi), with Uthman al-Filistini serving as his deputy and Ayyub al-Barqawi[18] serving as the chief Kadhi (judge).

Announcing the Caliphate

Abu Ayyub al-Barqawi officially announced the establishment of the caliphate and implored all Muslims to pledge an oath of allegiance to Caliph Abu Isa Muhammad Ali ibn Ahmad Al-Hashimy Al-Qurayshi. Likewise, al-Barqawi outlined the responsibilities and obligations of the Caliph, principal among them being the abolishment of man-made laws, the primacy of Sharia, and unwavering opposition to kuffar (non-Sharia based) governments. Moreover, the Caliph was obliged to assemble all Muslims under the banner of Tawhid, as well as impose the primacy of Islam across the World through both offensive and defensive jihad[19]. The aforementioned obligations are presently being actualized by the Islamic State as it plunges the Middle East into turmoil besides threatening regional stability in the Sahel-Sahara region of Africa.

Nonetheless, Al-Qaeda stubbornly and determinedly opposed JaM, just as it severely and inflexibly opposes the Islamic State nowadays. The reasons why Al-Qaeda was vehemently against the Caliphate declared by JaM and is still opposed to the Caliphate declared by the Islamic State are expounded in the second part of this piece. In both cases, the past hurdles faced by Al-Qaeda have returned to haunt it; and it is also highly probable that the Islamic State may suffer a fate worse than that of Jama`at al-Muslimin.



[1] Bunzel, Cole (2015). From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State. Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings [Analysis Paper, No. 19, March 2015].

[2] Seib, Gerald and Spindle, Bill (30 August 2014). “Brutal rise of Islamist state turns old enemies into new friends”. Wall Street Journal.

[3] Bunzel, loc.cit.

[4] Atwan, Abdel Bari (2006). The Secret History of Al Qaeda. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[5] Jenkins, Brian Michael (2014). Brothers Killing Brothers: The Current Infighting Will Test al Qaeda’s Brand. RAND Corporation [Perspective].

[6] Barret, Richard (2014). The Islamic State. The Soufan Group [Intelligence Report published on November 2014].

[7] Jenkins, loc.cit.

[8] Sageman, Marc (2004). Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[9] Dalacoura, Katerina (2011). Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East. London: Cambridge University Press.

[10] Atwan, loc.cit.

[11] Sageman, loc.cit.

[12] Kepel, Gilles (2002). Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[13] Wagemakers, Joas (2012). A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. London: Cambridge University Press.

[14] Gunaratna, Rohan (2002). Inside Al Qaeda (1st Ed.). London: C. Hurst & Co.

[15] Goodson, Larry (2001). Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban. University of Washington Press.

[16] 7th Century Generation (2007). Discussion Forum: Caliph Elected and Given Bayah before Khilafah Established. (Accessed on 23 September 2015). This is an English-Language online forum where (predominantly) European and American Jihadis converge to have a discourse on current affairs and other critical issues affecting the Muslim community.

[17] 7th Century Generation, loc.cit.

[18] 7th Century Generation, loc.cit.

[19] 7th Century Generation, loc.cit.

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