The Bloody Split Within ISIS

Inside the Group's Crackdown on Ultra-Extremists

An ISIS fighter in Mosul, June 2014. STRINGER / REUTERS

In 2014, as life in the Islamic State (ISIS) began to stabilize, many of its foreign fighters adopted an almost civilian routine. They spent their time reading, discussing religion, and giving lectures on their visions of a utopian Islamist state. But not all of these fighters’ ideas matched ISIS’ official positions. Many began to disagree with the group’s interpretation of Islam.

Even by ISIS’ standards, these dissidents were extreme. They denounced some of their leaders and fellow militants as kaffirs, or infidels—in ISIS’ thinking, a charge that merits death. By doing so, several thousand fighters turned ISIS’ strongest weapon—its ideology—against the organization itself.

ISIS’ leadership responded to the ultra-extremists with force, killing many of them. But a small number managed to escape and are now in hiding outside of the Middle East.


The story of ISIS’ radical breakaways began when some of its fighters started to turn to the ideas of Ahmad al-Hazimi, a preacher who wrote a book called Ignorance Is Not an Excuse in Islam. Hazimi believes that those who excuse the religiously ignorant and fail to excommunicate Muslims who merit such treatment are themselves kaffirs. (To excommunicate is to declare takfir; the extension of excommunication Hazimi supports is known as “chain takfir.”) Like some other radical groups, ISIS holds that infidels are legitimate targets for killing, but unlike Hazimi’s followers, it does not support chain takfir.

When Hazimi’s followers were fighting in Iraq and Syria, some of them argued that locals who had used government courts and participated in elections were infidels deserving of excommunication. For the most part, ISIS paid them little heed. “How could it be a caliphate if the local people do not even know how to pray?” one ex-fighter from Central Asia asked us in 2016.

The main problem for ISIS was that, taken to its natural conclusion, this logic would eventually lead to the excommunication of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself. “I left my jamaat [group] because my

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