Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi under influence: one mentor?

15 May


When talking about the path of radicalization of the deceased amir of al Qa’ida in Iraq Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi, the same name keeps coming up again and again: Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi. This senior Jordanian jihadi scholar is almost systematically portrayed as the « spiritual mentor » of al Zarqawi, a characterization refering to the close ties they had after they first met in Peshawar back in the early 90’s.

And here is the problem: by focusing solely on the Jordanian cleric, other influences are kept in the shadows while they might turn out far more significant to understand how al Zarqawi has become the al Zarqawi we all know, namely the « Shaykh of the slaughterers » in Iraq. What I’m saying is that al Zarqawi, like other jihadis, went through successive stages in his life, each of them having specific repercussions on the shaping of his personality/views. Then, if the relationship between the two Jordanians can be accurately defined as a mentor-student one, it was only during a restricted period of time. Putting an emphasis on this figure only is hence not enough to have the full picture of the evolution of al Zarqawi. As he himself once put it: « So just as I benefited from Sheikh Maqdisi, may Allah reward him many times over, I have also benefited from other righteous scholars. »

When al Zarqawi migrated to Afghanistan after having been released from Jordanian cells in March 1999, the harmony between the Shaykh and his student had been strained by various frictions and divergences. As for al Zarqawi and other young Jordanians leaving their home country, al Maqdisi was deeply concerned about this move on various levels, including their lack of a clear program.

Regarding al Zarqawi, moving away from his home country enabled him to further emancipate from al Maqdisi’s shadow. His new environment among the Arab-Afghan community led him to be more suceptible to new influences. He would find these new beliefs in the person of Abu Abdullah al Muhajir, born Muhammad Ibrahim al Saghir.

If his name/kunya don’t ring a bell, no worries: compared to others, he is far from being a very popular jihadi scholar online nor are his writings/audios widespread & well-known on forums (I don’t even know what he looks like). The available material which can offer us a glimpse at the teachings he gave in Afghanistan is not that numerous. To my knowledge, there are at least 7 series of lectures, all of which dealing with pretty common topics:

  • The governance.

  • Ahl al Sunna wal Jama’a (Sunnis) faith/characteristics.

  • An introduction to the al Wala’ wal Bara’ (loyalty towards Muslims & disavowal towards unbelievers) concept.

  • The jurisprudence of jihad.

  • Western civilization.

 As for his writings, he authored two books, respectively entitled The jurisprudence of jihad issues and The pioneers of spreading the Sunnah in the landmarks of the victorious sect. From all the sources I’ve come across, these two documents are the only available writing material you could find.

However, his low online popularity largely contrasts with his stature among militant circles. Illustrating al Muhajir’s affiliation to the prestigious milieu of « scholars of jihad » (ulama al jihad), Ayman al Zawahiri puts him among the « ulema who are still alive who have been useful to the mujahidin with their counsel, who support jihad and the mujahidin, or those who actually take part in jihad » (The Exoneration).

Very little is known about his early background. We know that he emigrated from Egypt to fight against the Red Army troops in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. According to al Zawahiri, he « graduated from the Islamic University in Islamabad » where he apparently got a master degree in Shari’ah. Contrary to many other Arab mujahidin at that time, he seems to have remained in Pakistan after the Soviet withrawal, until security concerns related to the Egyptian embassy bombing (caveat: not sure about that) in Islamabad (November 1995) prompted him to settle in Afghanistan during the course of 1996.

There, he established himself as a major figure of the Khaldan camp in Khost by becoming its Shari’ah official (mas’ul shara’i). As such, he oversaw lessons focusing on shar’ih matters. The theological sessions he hold for his students dealt with governance issues and beliefs of « the enemies of the religion » among other things. This cycle of sessions was said to be of significant importance within the training process.

The Institute for the Faith Brigades (ma’had kata’ib al iman) was created under his leadership, a project he had longed for quite some time. According to a former student, the Institute, annexed to the Khaldan camp, consisted of a large room where the seekers of knowledge were sleeping, a small adjoining room for the Shaykh and his library and another rooms in which he helds his lectures on doctrinal issues (al Wala’ wal Bara’, jihad issues, sects, etc). The seven series of lectures I mentioned above are part of what he taught in the Institute he once ran. Its establishing was for two purposes: to solidify the doctrinal foundations of the mujahdin so that they can act upon before undertaking jihadi actions (meaning Shar’iah-compliant operations); to create groups of various nationalities so they would fight the apostate regimes in their respective countries (there were also plans aiming at the wealth of Western countries).

As a leading jihadi scholar, the Egyptian taught his Islamic lessons to many seekers of knowledge from various parts of the world. They were of course Arabs: most of the students of his Institute were from the Maghreb. Among them was Talha al Maghribi, who arrived in Afghanistan during the 1996 summer after having fled Sweden where he had supported the Algerian jihad. He would later be known as Abu Qaswarah al Maghribi, the amir of the north for the Islamic State of Iraq.

But it is worthwhile noting that students were not necessarily from Arab countries: members of Islamic Party of Turkistan (IPT), including its leaders/commanders, used to attend courses in Khaldan. These would include Shaykh Bilal al Turkistani, who studied Islamic jurisprudence under al Muhajir’s supervision. Abdul Haq al Turkistani, the late amir of IPT, recalled: « I went to the military base, along with some Arab brothers, one of whom was Sheikh Abu Abdullah Al-Muhajir, who was in charge of the Shari’a academy on the base (….) During that time I studied the jurisprudence of Jihad, and the fundaments of faith according to Ahl Al-Sunna Wal-Jama’a, from Sheikh Abu Abdullah Al-Muhajir ». 

(see: http://www.nefafoundation.org/file/nefa_tipabdulhaqintvupart2.pdf)

During his time at Khaldan, the Egyptian scholar was a strident opponent to Usama bin Ladin and known as being among the top adversaries of al Qa’ida agenda. Actually, he was representative of a broader landscape: the takfiri faction in Afghanistan. Khaldan & co were labeled as such within the Arab-Afghan milieu because of their particularly stringent manhaj (doctrine) (see: http://allthingscounterterrorism.com/my-dialogue-with-abu-walid-al-masri/arabic-and-english-versions-of-abu-walids-answers-to-my-questions/english-trans-abu-walids-fifth-reponse/). While bin Ladin has showed pragmatism regarding alliances with other groups, Arab-Afghan takfiris castigated this flexibility for being too moderate and not enough concerned by religious purity which they consider the cornerstone for any cooperation. Their hardline doctrine led them to refuse any alignment with the Taliban regime. They deemed the latter as puppets in Pakistani services hands and viewed their so called Islamic legitimacy as a fraud. As Abd al Hamid (a Syrian takfiri whose real name is Baha’ Mustafa Jughl) delicately put it: « We differ with our people here about the Taliban regime; they see them as God’s righteous saints, while we view them as heretics and apostates. » (see: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/cracks-in-the-foundation-leaderhip-schisms.pdf) Their strong revulsion over the Taliban revolves around several grievances, including:

-Grave-worship (quburiyah) and other local practices which amounts to shirk (polytheism).

– Seeking a seat at the United Nations, viewed as an idol besides Allah.

-Their soft attitude towards apostate Arab regimes.

Their extremism led them to apply the same hostile verdict for those partnering with the deviant Afghans and fighting under their banner. As a result, the students at the al Muhajir’s Institute began to expose what they see as deviances from bin Ladin. Aside from his alliance with Afghan polytheists (the criticism was a bit rich when you look at the complexity of al Qa’ida-Taliban nexus), the Saudi was harshly criticized by al Muhajir and the takfiris around him for his former ties to the un-Islamic Sudanese regime (as you can see, being truly Islamic is pretty hard to takfiris’ eyes), his support to Nawaz Sharif to harm Benazir Bhutto and because some of within al Qa’ida Shari’ah committee, including his responsible Abu Hafs al Mauritani, were accused of following deviant schools of thought. Such doctrinal violations led al Muhajir to run a session dealing with the legitimacy of the fight at his Institute.

This hostile attitude caused sharp tensions between Khaldan & the Institute on one side, and the Taliban and their supporters (inside and outside Afghanistan) on the other. Since it allowed the opening of the Institute, Khaldan administration faced heavy pressures from both bin Ladin’s followers and the Taliban regime to close this source of embarrassment. On a side note, it’s always funny to see Khaldan being labeled an al Qa’ida camp when you know the vehemence of the tensions between the two and that, according to a takfiri account, the camp administration once even refused to allow bin Ladin to get access to the Khost-based training facility.

Controversies surrounding the Taliban/their legitimacy led to a number of fatawa/treatises/booklets issued by each camp to refute the others’ arguments. An active pro Taliban camapaign was carried out by several leading Arab figures, such as Abu Layth al Libi, a member of the Shura council of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and Abu Mus’ab al Suri, who authored Afghanistan, the Taliban and the battle for Islam today in which he argues that the Afghan regime represents a true Islamic state. Other works boosting the legitimacy of Mulla Muhammad Umar’s movement include those of the leading scholar Abu Qatada al Filistini, who issued several writings denouncing the takfiri tendency.

 As a result of this activism to calm anti Taliban sentiments, some among Khaldan radicals began to change their views about the legitimacy of jihad alongside the Taliban. At the forefront of them was al Muhajir. His stance on the Taliban/al Qa’ida having changed, he then joined bin Ladin in Kandahar and working for his organization. Illustrating this new relationship, he continued his involvment in the religious/jurisprudencial field but this time in the Shari’ah Institute and the Arabic Language center, both in Kandahar and founded by Abu Hafs al Mauritani.

 Hurt by this turn of events, a number of North African radicals decided to leave the Institute, whose number decreased gradually until its closing, and relocated to Jalalabad, where they set up their own guesthouses. These Algerian/Tunisian factions were known as the most extreme of the Arab Afghan community. As Abu’l Walid al Misri put it: « the most tolerant of them saw the Taliban as infidels…Their stance was the most easily comprehensible, simple and contrarian; it began with excommunicating (takfir) the Taliban and ended with excommunicating everyone in their vicinity, from Arabs to the residents of Afghanistan » (see: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-facade-of-allegiance-bin-ladin%E2%80%99s-dubious-pledge-to-mullah-omar). But the conflict didn’t stop raging with the closing of the Institute: the North Africans hardliners were still pressured by bin Ladin’s supporters and others, such as Abu’l Harith al Urduni, a notorious Jordanian military commander, who warned them: « Either you fight (with the Taliban) or leave Afghanistan! ».

The radicality of the takfiris proved to be their downfall. For starters, the repeated conflicts left the takfiri minority pretty isolated. Abd al Hamid bemoans what he sees as an unfair marginalization: « the situation in general is bad, our relation with the people here is very bad, while we treat them with kindness they in return treat us badly, we advise them in a friendly manner they treat us with vilification, and accuse us of bad things. » Secondly, besides the closing down of the Institute, the Taliban regime decided to take care of Khaldan for good by shutting it down too in the mid 2000, making al Qa’ida wish come true (see:http://allthingscounterterrorism.com/2009/10/20/peter-bergins-new-piece-on-the-taliban-al-qaeda-merger/)

This whole divisive development let deep bitterness among al Muhajir’s former companions. As opposed to al Qa’ida attitude, the takfiris are quite outspoken and inclined to vocally air their dirty laundry. Vociferous, they can’t help themselves when it comes to criticize those seen as not following the pure monotheism. Therefore, even after the closing of Khaldan/the Institute, those among the takfiri elements who never recanted kept openly condemning the Islamic emirate and its foreign mujahidin allies. In 2003, Asharq al Awsat newspaper reported the publication of a book authored by Abu Bilal al Ruwayni, a senior takfiri figure, soberly entitled Is bin Ladin from the callers at the gates of hell? (referring to the following hadith: « [A time will come] when there will be people standing and inviting at the gates of Hell. Whosoever responds to their call they will throw them into the fire). Issued on radical forums by the Ansar al Mahdi group (a group of takfiris based in Peshawar), the book constitutes, no surprise here, a scathing attack against the misguided (i.e. Taliban & their Arab supporters) whose actions are against the true Islam. Exposing them being a duty, al Ruwayni nominally slamed al Muhajir for having deviated from the right path and turned into a turncoat. Revealing his side of the story, he bewails that after having denounced the Taliban as outside the Islamic fold, al Muhajir ended up issuing a fatwa supporting jihad alongside them, after which some of his students were killed on the frontlines.

Besides his new involvment in favor of al Qa’ida in Kandahar, al Zawahiri recalls that al Muhajir also « instructed the mujahidin in Kabul », where a large Arab community (compared to other areas in Afghanistan) lived. After that, he passed on his doctrinal legs in Herat to al Zarqawi and his Levantine group. It is here whorthwhile remembering that before getting along with al Muhajir, al Zarqawi had always been against suicide operations. That was his position both during his first stay in Afghanistan and when he went back to Jordania. Given how later al Qa’ida in Iraq heavily relied on this method, it is safe to say that this encounter has been a major step in his radicalization trajectory. Al Zarqawi explained that he changed his mind after having « discussed the matter of martyrdom » and listened to several tapes of the Shaykh (he also said that he read what he deemed « an excellent paper » by al Muhajir on this issue). He further remembered that after that, « Allah has expanded my breast to accept his position on martyrdom operations. Not only did I see that they (martyrdom operations) are permitted but I was convinced that they are desirable. I proceeded then to arrange for Sheikh Al-Muhajir to give a 10-days work shop in Hirat Camp to explain the legality of these operation to the brothers there- this had a very positive impact on the brothers. » According to a takfiri militant, the suicide operations issue was one of the various topics which have been dealt with during the Institute heyday, during a course on jihad.

In the aftermath of the destruction of the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan in late 2001, al Muhajir fled the country and relocated to Iran, along wtih al Qa’ida leadership & other Afghan Arabs. I, for one, can’t tell the level of weight he had within al Qa’ida once he got into its fold, but the very knowledgeable Leah Farrall once said that he was a very influencial al Qa’ida cleric. Given Leah’s carefulness when choosing her words, I’m thereby inclined that he was instrumental in the ideology field & doctrinal issues for the organization. And due to his takfiri background and what Leah said about al Qa’ida inclusion of takfiri material in its ideology after 9/11 (see: http://allthingscounterterrorism.com/foreign-affairs-article-how-al-qaeda-works/), I’d hazard to guess that he may have carried weight on building these new ideological foundations (based on the primary material I’ve come across, I’m quasi sure of the identity of at least one Iran-based senior figure involved in this evolution and who might have been in contact with al Muhajir there).

The significance of al Muhajir’s relations with al Zarqawi doesn’t seem to have vanished when the latter went to Iraq. A telling first hand account is provided with a book authored by Shaykh Maysarah al Gharib, a Shari’ah Committee official of al Qa’ida in Iraq. According to him, al Zarqawi was eager to bring his hard line Shaykh alongisde him on the Iraqi frontlines and adds: « Every piece of evidence available indicates that if he had come to Iraq, [Zarqawiwould have appointed him in charge of charge of the Shariah Council [of Al-Qaida in Iraq].» (see: http://www.nefafoundation.org/miscellaneous/nefazarqawi1207.pdf) He also recalls how willing al Qa’ida in Iraq amir was to make his Shaykh’s teachings taught to young militants fighting in Iraq. This explains why his two books, namely The Pioneers of Spreading the Sunnah in the Landmarks of the Victorious Sect and The jurisprudence of the blood (better known as The jurisprudence of jihad issues), were spread among/taught (notably by al Gharib) to militants of al Qa’ida in Iraq. Regarding the second book, al Gharib claims that al Zarqawi had studied it with al Muhajir « four years ago », i.e. 2003 (note of caution: he is not sure of the exact date). The Syrian al Qa’ida official adds that « many photocopies were made of it under the title ‘The Jurisprudence of Jihad Issues’ » and defines it as « a good, strong book, worthy of explaining and teaching it to the mujahideen brothers. »

Even if al Zarqawi has never publicly talked at length about al Muhajir, he mentioned him several times: when al Maqdisi openly questioned the legitimacy of fighting Iraqi Shi’a as a whole, his former student put al Muhajir among the « righteous scholars » who had declared that the ordinary Shi’a are unbelievers, hence fighting them was legitimate. Also, reacting to the Jordanian scholar discouraging would-be volunteers to go to Iraq, al Zarqawi answers by saying that this statement contradicts the opinion of other jihadi leaders/scholars, including al Muhajir.

And if you’re still not convinced by al Muhajir’s importance within al Zarqawi’s life, I’ll just quote what the Jordanian said privately to his inner circle. Here, Abu Azzam al Iraqi, a late senior al Qa’ida in Iraq figure, quotes his Shaykh Abu Mus’ab: « I was not influenced by anyone I met among seekers of knowledge in my whole life like (as I was by) Shaykh Abu Anas al-Shami (may Allah accept him) and Shaykh Abu Abdullah al Muhajir (may Allah protect him). »

After having been detained by Iranian authorities, nothing was heard from him for years (to my knowledge at least). But things changed in May 2011, when forums announced that the Shaykh had been freed from Iranian prisons and that he was on his way back in his home country. This news was confirmed by an article in Asharq al Awsat in late August 2011. According to Muhammad Yasin, a senior figure of al Gama’a al Islamiyah: « He telephoned me [from Turkey], and we made calls for him to the Foreign Ministry. God be praised, he came back about a week ago. He is now in Port Said with his Jordanian wife and his three children. There are no judgments against him in Egypt. » He adds that al Muhajir « telephoned me from Iran, and I told him to go to Turkey, because the Egyptian embassy in Turkey was cooperative and good. He did in fact go to the embassy. Travel documents were prepared for him, and he and his wife returned. I met him at the airport. He had a problem — more exactly, an old proceeding against him in Port Said and against Ayman al-Zawahiri and others. He was released by the office of the prosecutor for state security and the proceeding in Port Said was suspended. »

Well, this was my two cents on al Zarqawi’s influences issue. It goes without saying that, while I chose to focus on Abu Abdullah al Muahjir because I had the feeling that too much credit was granted to al Maqdisi, others influences exist as well. Abu Anas al Shami could definitely be included in the list: when asked about the « three most important individuals who had influenced his life », al Zarqawi mentioned his beloved companion. I’ll leave others to dig in, but my point was just to give a more balanced view of al Zarqawi’s extremism shaping.

Last thing: my little talk was about human influences, but obviously, there are other factors to take into account when pondering about path to radicalization. 


One Response to “Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi under influence: one mentor?”


  1. The Intellectual Crisis of a Bad Idea: Religious Ethics in the Study of Suicide Terrorism | Voix Magazine - December 19, 2013

    […] and violent attacks against Iraqi Shiite non-combatants would not become a hallmark of AQ until Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s pledge of allegiance to the Jihadist organization and his coming to prominence in […]

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