The Party That Failed
An Insider Breaks With Beijing
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is down but not out. In March 2019, U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces captured the group’s last territorial stronghold in the Middle East, the town of Baghuz in eastern Syria. Seven months later, the organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed himself after U.S. special operations forces trapped him in a dead-end tunnel.
But ISIS didn’t die with him. In November, Russell Travers, the acting director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, testified to Congress that over the last year ISIS carried out a number of centrally coordinated transnational attacks and propaganda campaigns, indicating a degree “of enhanced connectivity.” Even after Baghdadi’s death, Travers said, the group “remains robust and—in some areas—is expanding.”
The man upon whom ISIS’s continued resurgence now depends is Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. Little is known about Baghdadi’s successor, whose real identity remains a mystery. (Qurashi is a nom de guerre.) U.S. State Department officials have both described him as a “nobody” and conceded that “nobody knows his background.” But to reunite what remains of the militant organization and build on the momentum of the last year, Qurashi will have to resolve two festering problems that bedeviled his predecessor: an ideological dispute that threatens to tear ISIS apart from within and a rapidly expanding network of global branches and affiliates that presents a raft of challenges to centralized control.
The new caliph didn’t inherit a unified or ideologically coherent organization from Baghdadi. He inherited one that is deeply divided over the doctrinal issue of takfir, or excommunication. The dispute is wide-ranging, but it centers on a single question: whether Muslims who excuse coreligionists who commit “polytheistic” acts—such as voting in elections, which is considered an expression of loyalty to a sovereign other than God—can be declared unbelievers.
One faction within ISIS—the Hazimis, or “extremists”—contends that excusing such acts is itself heretical, making it permissible to kill the excuser. Another faction, the so-called moderates, opposes this interpretation. Its members warn that the extremists’ approach is untenable, since it would cast masses of Muslims outside the faith, including a great many jihadis who differ over how to interpret takfir and when to use it. Internal ISIS documents leaked by dissenters on both sides of the takfir debate show that Baghdadi struggled to resolve this tension in his final years.
In late 2015, ISIS’s Department of General Security—a body charged with managing a broad range of internal and external security issues—proclaimed that it planned to rid the organization of extremists. But in early 2016, one of ISIS’s most important scholars, Turki al-Binali, claimed that the issue of “extremism” within the organization remained unresolved. In an effort to mediate between the factions, ISIS issued two reports in mid-2016. In one, the group prohibited discussing the nature of takfir, and in the other, it asserted that the organization’s most pressing problem was not the overuse of takfir but rather excessive moderation.
The new caliph didn’t inherit a unified or ideologically coherent organization from Baghdadi.
By May 2017, ISIS’s top leadership had denounced the extremists within their ranks in an official ruling that simultaneously brought the organization closer to the extremist interpretation of takfir. This awkward compromise angered the more moderate ISIS scholars, who publicly voiced their disagreement with the ruling. In September 2017, ISIS leadership backtracked, withdrawing the May ruling on takfir. But this concession to the moderate camp didn’t silence the growing chorus of dissent. After Baghdadi’s death, for instance, moderates went as far as questioning the legitimacy of Qurashi, whose stance on takfir remains unknown, in two essays published through the dissident Al Wafa Media Agency.
The doctrinal debate over takfir had real-world repercussions. Rancorous infighting over the issue weakened ISIS during a crucial period of its decline in 2018 and 2019, causing friction at all layers of the organization, from scholars to foot soldiers, and even defections. As a result, some of ISIS’s rank and file came to see the organization’s religious scholars as “the foundation of the problem,” as the ISIS dissident Abu Abd al-Malek al-Shami put it, prompting ISIS’s Delegated Committee—the group’s top governing body—to imprison many of the scholars involved in the takfir debate.
Even now, those on both sides of the dispute remain convinced that the other side has corrupted the organization. Which of the two factions is stronger, and how Qurashi will approach the debate, remains to be seen. But left unresolved, the issue is likely to undermine his authority as well as his ability to coordinate the group’s dozens of global branches and affiliates.
Qurashi inherited control of a transnational entity that extends from West Africa to Southeast Asia. At the beginning of 2014, the group was known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and had a formal presence in just two countries. Today, ISIS has branches as far north as Azerbaijan and as far south as Mozambique and Mindanao in the Philippines. In May 2019, the organization added a branch in Pakistan to its already expansive roster of subsidiaries and affiliates. ISIS’s rapid global advance was one of Baghdadi’s crowning achievements, but it also introduced a number of political, cultural, and linguistic challenges to centralized control.
A deluge of recent videos of militants around the world pledging allegiance to Qurashi and ISIS reveals the depth of loyalty that the organization’s branches and affiliates still feel toward their central command. And according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, ISIS leadership likely still orchestrates the transnational attacks and propaganda campaigns carried out by its branches and subsidiaries.
ISIS’s rapid global advance was one of Baghdadi’s crowning achievements.
But with new branches and affiliates have come new problems of coordination. When the organization first expanded into West Africa in 2015, ISIS sought to partner with the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram. But despite swearing loyalty to Baghdadi, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau refused to abide by ISIS’s norms, producing deep strife within the West African organization. In 2016, Baghdadi was forced to replace Shekau with Shekau’s spokesperson Abu Musab al-Barnawi. Barnawi’s selection is believed to have cemented ISIS’s relationship with its West African affiliate. But it also split the group in two, as Shekau absconded with soldiers who remained loyal to him. Similar coordination issues are likely to arise in Africa and elsewhere as ISIS’s central leadership moves to reconsolidate after Baghdadi’s death.
To manage this ever-growing network, the new caliph will likely seek to empower the Department of General Security. According to Benjamin Bahney and Patrick B. Johnston, two political scientists at the RAND Corporation, this entity is “the glue of the ISIS organization from top to bottom.” It is the crucial link between the organization’s leadership and its specialized departments, which coordinate everything from propaganda production to the creation of sleeper cells. During Baghdadi’s tenure, it maintained cohesion between the organization’s senior leaders and helped keep the center in sync with a rapidly expanding list of affiliates in geographically dispersed territories.
As the new ISIS leader, Qurashi has the power to shape the future of his organization. But Baghdadi’s legacy and the challenges he faced during his tenure still loom large. To rebuild ISIS into a potent organization with global reach, Qurashi will need to both mend the internal ideological rift and command ISIS’s branches and affiliates—all while avoiding the fate of his predecessor.
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