Below we see Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar’s top shar’i “Mu’tasim Billah al-Madani” rebut the arguments of defected shar’i “Abu Azzam al-Najdi.” Mu’tasim Billah’s response is itself enlightening, insofar as it provides a window into how jihadists understand intra-rebel dynamics and their own legitimacy.
Since his defection to ISIS, former Jeish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar shar’i Abu Azzam has continued to appeal to other jihadists to join him in what he argues is ISIS’s successful, coherent experiment of Islamic governance. He has emphasized ISIS’s most visible achievements, e.g., the implementation of the hudoud, a set of Islamic criminal punishments. He has also denigrated the dysfunction of rebel-held areas and the fact that “sincere” – that is, jihadist – fighters are sent to the fronts to be chewed up while crooks and agents of the West plot to undermine them.
Mu’tasim Billah answers by pointing to jihadists’ preferred model of Islamic law being implemented across northern Syria. In sharp contrast with the alarm of many inside and outside Syria over ISIS’s videotaped stoning of an allegedly adulterous woman in eastern Hama earlier this week, Mu’tasim Billah’s first example of God’s will being done is a stoning in Saraqeb (Idlib). He also provides a sort of map of northern jihadist areas of control, including many areas now administered by the Jabhat al-Nusrah-linked Dar al-Qadaa (Judiciary).
All of these examples flag a shift within Syria’s jihadist camp, one that seems driven by an evolving Jabhat al-Nusrah (also known as al-Qaeda in the Levant). Nusrah had previously adhered to a sort of jihadist minimalism, at least temporarily declining to implement harsh social codes like the hudoud and backing consensual structures that met a minimum level of Islamic legitimacy, such as the Aleppo Shari’ah Commission. Now, in a seeming attempt to shore up its own credibility and to retain the loyalty of jihadists who might otherwise defect to ISIS, Nusrah has been behaving more and more like circa-2013 ISIS. Nusrah is now engaging some less-reputable nationalist brigades with the same sort of sharp-elbows approach ISIS used in summer and fall of last year. It’s also begun to adopt a similar fast-forward approach to law and governance that is, arguably, religiously unsound in wartime.
Despite warnings from jihadist reformers like Nusrah’s Abu Mariyah al-Qahtani about the need for jihadist groups to purge “ghulaat” (extremists) from their ranks, Nusrah and other groups seem to have responded to ISIS’s ideological threat by becoming more like ISIS – catering to their own most extreme members by competing to implement Islamic rule here and now. That’s why we see Mu’tasim Billah mustering these examples when arguing with Abu Azzam; in an intra-jihadist argument, stonings are a badge of pride.
(Also of note: That the areas Mu’tasim Billah says are either under jihadist control or that of jihadists’ nationalist rebel frenemies like Jamal Ma’rouf are so discombobulated geographically is just further evidence of what a patchwork things are in the rebel north.)