An Ideological Founder of Islamic State is Killed in Syria

UPDATE: It has subsequently become clear that the “Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir” who was killed in Syria on 18 November 2016 was not Muhammad al-Saghir, who is profiled below. The slain man, like al-Saghir a veteran of the war get the Soviets out of Afghanistan and an Egyptian jihadist with close links to al-Qaeda, also used the kunya “Abu Afghan al-Muhajir”.

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on November 20, 2016

Abu Abdallah al-Muhajir (source)

A week ago, it became clear that the air war being waged by the U.S.-led Coalition, which primarily targets the Islamic State (IS), was going to expand its campaign against the leadership of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded branch in Syria. In the evening of 18 November 2016, the Coalition killed Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, whose real name is Muhammad Ibrahim al-Saghir. Al-Saghir also uses the name Abd al-Rahman al-Ali. This killing would appear to be part of the Coalition’s new effort.

Al-Saghir has a long record as an important jihadi religious ideologue, though his exact relationship with al-Qaeda’s network remains unclear. Al-Saghir’s most lasting contribution to jihadi-salafism is as a key guide to the founder of IS, Ahmad al-Khalayleh.

Al-Khalayleh would become globally infamous under the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for his beheading hostages on video, suicide bombings, and extreme sectarianism—all trends that can be traced back to al-Saghir’s influence. IS has shown remarkable ideological continuity, thus retaining al-Saghir as an important part of its DNA—and his work still shows up now in IS’s strategic guidance.


Al-Saghir was an Egyptian, and joined the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when he was 16-years-old, according to a short biography released on jihadi Telegram channels. Once the Red Army retreated, al-Saghir stayed in Pakistan, where it seems he acquired a master’s degree in shari’a from the Islamic University of Islamabad.

Al-Saghir was therefore out of Afghanistan during the period of continued war against the Soviet-allied Communist government and then the war of all against all as the Mujahideen battled for Kabul.

In late 1994, arising out of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and the Deobandi seminaries, came the Taliban (lit. “students”). Sickened by the chaos and cynicism of those who had fought in god’s name and now shredded what was left of the country in a bid for personal power, the Taliban asserted itself against the Mujahideen. The Taliban swiftly consolidated power in the Pashtun south, backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both political forces, Mawlana Fazlur Rehman and his Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) primary among them, and the military, specifically the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D). In addition to the successive waves of students from the madrassas (Afghans and Pakistanis), many Pashtuns, and a number of rank-and-file members of other armed groups also joined the Taliban, seeing an opportunity to restore a semblance of order that had collapsed in the wake of the Marxist coup in 1978. The Taliban would not compromise and its foes could not unite, so the group marched on.

By the time Usama bin Ladin had relocated from Sudan to Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan in May 1996, al-Saghir was back in Afghanistan. Al-Saghir had left Pakistan due to security concerns after the bombing of Egypt’s Embassy in Islamabad by Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) in November 1995. In September 1996, the Afghan government, such as it was, of Burhanuddin Rabbani fell and the Taliban swept into Kabul.

One of the immediate questions for the Arab jihadists was whether or not they would help the Taliban as it continued to press its war further north to try to capture the rest of the country from a series of insurgent leaders who would eventually unite to form the Northern Alliance. Bin Ladin quickly decided that al-Qaeda would support the Taliban and founded 055 Brigade, which provided troops to the Taliban and was the personal bodyguard for Bin Ladin. 055 Brigade was commanded by Nashwan Abd al-Baqi (Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi), an ethnic Kurd who had served in Saddam Husayn’s army. Al-Baqi brought his field manual with him to Afghanistan when he came to fight the Soviets, integrating well-developed Iraqi military tactics into al-Qaeda’s—and therefore IS’s—operating procedures.

Among those who thought it impermissible (p. 229) for foreign jihadists to buttress the Taliban regime was al-Saghir, the most visible representative of the independent religious institute, Mahad Kataib al-Iman (Institute of the Faith Brigades), at the Khalden camp near Khost. At this time, the remnants of other Arab jihadi groups, notably EIJ and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), were arriving in Afghanistan after losing struggles against the governments in their homelands. Eventually EIJ and LIFG would form key parts of al-Qaeda “core”: EIJ’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, became Bin Ladin’s deputy, and Libyans like Ali al-Ruqayi (Abu Layth al-Libi) and Jamal al-Misrati (Atiyyatullah al-Libi or Atiyya) became notable religious authorities. The Libyans in particular also became loyal warriors of the Taliban regime. But al-Saghir’s view that Arab jihadists should not fight for the Taliban since it was insufficiently methodologically pure was not, in the beginning, a controversial one, though his accompanying views—the heretical nature of the Shi’a, it being licit to behead god’s enemies (such is “delightful to god“)—marked him as the most extreme of the international jihadist contingent.

There were only two important figures that supported al-Qaeda’s position in providing support to the Taliban in its civil war. One was Zayn al-Abidin Husayn (Abu Zubaydah) and his Mujahideen Services Centre, which was based at Khalden but provided services to other terrorists, in Afghanistan and beyond. The other was Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri), the most pro-Taliban of the international jihadists, who stressed creating as wide a front of holy war as possible. Setmariam, the preeminent strategist of the jihadi-salafist world, worked at various camps after he returned to Afghanistan in 1996-7—as he had done during the 1980s—before establishing his own, al-Ghuraba, in Kargha, near Kabul. But both Husayn and especially Setmariam remained sternly independent.

Al-Zarqawi was set up in his own camp in Herat in early 2000, months after arriving in Taliban Afghanistan, and provided with specialist training for his fighters and seed money by al-Qaeda, yet al-Zarqawi was not required to swear allegiance to Bin Ladin. Why had Bin Ladin agreed to the suggestion of his military chief, Sayf al-Adel, to take such an unequal deal?

In the first place, al-Qaeda had never been particularly skilled at recruiting from the Levant and Bin Ladin was rather suspicious, in counter-intelligence terms, of the recruits originating from there. Stories of Levantine jihadists being recruited in Dubai by intelligence services using a sort of jihadi Four Horsemen—sex, drugs, booze, and homosexuals—were current at the time.

These lurid stories were eventually dismissed, but the first meeting between al-Zarqawi and Bin Ladin was not exactly harmonious, either. The takfiri inclinations were evident enough in al-Zarqawi by this stage and ran against the grain of Bin Ladin’s project to create as inclusive a front as possible for a global Islamist revolution, of which al-Qaeda was to be, as its name suggests, the vanguard.

The answer is that al-Zarqawi was useful to Bin Ladin as a political counter-weight to Setmariam,1 who was accused of poaching recruits and who regarded himself as an equal to Bin Ladin, giving Arab jihadists in Afghanistan another option for their allegiance. Bin Ladin decided that two could play this game, giving Levantine jihadists another option—namely al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi’s arrival was timely for al-Qaeda, since there was a new influx of Levantine jihadists at the time, refugees from the attempt by Bassam al-Kanj (an old friend of al-Zarqawi’s) to bring off a coup in Syrian-occupied Lebanon.

The Founder

When he arrived in Taliban Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi was not favourably disposed toward suicide bombing and the other brutal tactics that have been integral to IS from the start. Al-Zarqawi had been imprisoned from 1994 to 1999 in his native Jordan with Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), today’s the most prominent jihadi-salafi ideologue. Al-Zarqawi imbibed al-Barqawi’s opposition to suicide-attacks. It was al-Saghir who changed his mind.

Al-Barqawi is often said to be the “mentor” to al-Zarqawi, and he was—for a time, as Kevin Jackson writes in his indispensable profile of al-Saghir. “Just as I benefited from Shaykh Maqdisi, … I have also benefited from other righteous scholars,” al-Zarqawi once said, adding: “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).”

(Abu Anas refers to Umar Yusef al-Juma, a Palestinian born in Kuwait who spent time in Bosnia and settled in Jordan as a preacher in the 1990s. Juma was among al-Zarqawi’s inner-circle during IS’s first incarnation, moving to Iraq in late 2002, acting as a spiritual leader for the organization, providing religious training to men like Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), and also directing attacks against Coalition forces.)

“I read [al-Saghir’s] valuable research and listened to his cassette tapes. Not only was I convinced that [suicide] operations are acceptable, I came to prefer them,” al-Zarqawi said, explaining his about-face. As Brian Fishman writes in his excellent new book, The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory, “if Abu Anas was the quintessential warrior-scholar, it was Abu Abdallah who defined Zarqawi—and the Islamic State’s—embrace of sectarianism, brutality, and suicide tactics that have come to define Zarqawiism’s adherents.” Al-Zarqawi allegedly first met al-Saghir during his first stint in Afghanistan in 1989, and got to know al-Saghir better after moving back to Afghanistan a decade later. Al-Saghir was invited to lecture at al-Zarqawi’s camp, Fishman notes.

Al-Saghir eventually modulated his statements to avoid being expelled by the Taliban, though the Khalden camp—long regarded as a rival, offering a la carte training without an ideological-factional commitment being required, and a nest of extremists to boot by al-Qaeda—would be closed before the Taliban were overthrown. Al-Saghir’s original views lived on, however, in al-Zarqawi.

When the Taliban fell in 2001, Bin Ladin went to Pakistan but al-Zarqawi, al-Adel, al-Saghir, and others went to Iran. It was in Iran that Fishman says the “master plan” came together, with al-Adel as its lead architect. With the complicity of the Iranian government, and indeed Saddam’s government, al-Zarqawi was able to move across the region, recruiting and preparing the ground to not only battle the American-led forces after they had finished the Gulf War, but to lay the foundations for the restoration of the caliphate.

An Enduring Influence on the Islamic State

In determining IS’s conduct, al-Saghir’s book, Questions About the Jurisprudence of Jihad, usually known as The Jurisprudence of Blood, was a key text for al-Zarqawi.

The book was handed out to IS’s soldiers during the fighting in Fallujah in 2004. Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German anti-Western agitator, is the only Westerner to be granted access to the caliphate. Before that, in late 2012, Todenhöfer reported for a pro-Hizballah paper that al-Saghir’s book was appearing among IS militants in Lebanon as they were preparing to publicly intrude into Syria. The activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), which has paid a terrible price for working against IS, reported earlier this year that al-Saghir’s book remained important to IS, alongside the better-known The Management of Savagery, written by Muhammad Khalil al-Hakim (Abu Bakr Naji).

Al-Hakim has multiple parallels with al-Adel. Both are Egyptians, both were among those Arab jihadists who took shelter with al-Zarqawi in Iran in the aftermath of the Taliban regime, and both probably wrote their influential tracts while in communication with al-Zarqawi. Additionally, “just like al-Adel, [al-Hakim] had ties with the Iranian government predating 9/11,” Fishman writes.

IS remains deeply hostile to those who reject its exclusive right to define Islam, and al-Saghir appears not to have sided with IS after the schism with al-Qaeda, but this would only repeat the pattern with al-Barqawi and Setmariam, public opponents of IS whose work is nonetheless cited and distributed by them.

It should not be surprising either that an influence over IS’s founder retains its hold over the organization ten years after he was killed. IS has remained remarkably consistent in its ideology over time. As Craig Whiteside has persuasively argued, IS is best seen as a revolutionary movement on the Maoist model: it has not modified its ideology in search of support; rather, after its strategic defeat by the surge-and-sahwa in 2008, IS just altered its tactics in implementing its project to modify the population to fit its ideology.

Freedom From Iran

Al-Saghir was ostensibly arrested in Iran at some point after his entry in 2001 and released in 2011, at which point he travelled back to his native Egypt, taking up residence in Port Said.

It should be noted: Tehran has frequently claimed to have under house arrest men who organize external terrorism, such as those who attacked Riyadh in May 2003, and the Islamic Republic also has—to this day—an al-Qaeda facilitation network operating on its territory, out of reach of American drone strikes, which is al-Qaeda’s lifeline to its external branches.

What appears to have happened is that al-Saghir was moved out of Iran at a moment that the theocracy needed to be seen to be acting against the jihadi-salafists it was harbouring. In July 2011, the U.S. Treasury made public the “secret deal” between Iran and al-Qaeda, and soon after Tehran expelled a number of people and arrested Ezedin Khalil (Yasin as-Suri), the then-head of the Iran-based al-Qaeda network. Khalil’s internment did not last long, however: by early 2014, Khalil was back on the streets, back in charge, and “more active than ever”.

Al-Saghir’s path from Egypt to Idlib is opaque but some guesses can be made. A number of al-Qaeda-linked Egyptian veteran jihadists, Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), Rifai Taha (Abu Yasser al-Masri) and Muhammad al-Islambuli among them, often now associated with the “Khorasan Group,” turned up in their homeland after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and remained until the violent military coup against the elected government of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. At that point, these men departed for Turkey, which has functioned as the rear base of al-Qaeda’s jihad in Syria—in the way Syria did for Iraq in the 2000s or Pakistan did for Afghanistan and Azerbaijan did for Chechnya in the 1990s. It is plausible al-Saghir was with them when they made this journey to Turkey.

Relationship With Al-Qaeda

What position al-Saghir held with regard to JFS is open to question.

Al-Qaeda has taken great care to try to hide its influence in Syria, hence the rebranding where JFS has ostensibly “split” with al-Qaeda, so it can embed in the national revolutionary movement. The intention is to shape the next government of Syria so that al-Qaeda can achieve its goals of a durable base for jihadists and ultimately external attacks without having to cause local friction—as IS has done—by insisting on exclusive rule.

This strategy was recently highlighted with the case of Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi cleric who claims to be independent; the U.S. Treasury Department says he is a religious advisor to JFS’s leadership circle.

There has been a lack of nuance for much of the past fifteen years in assessing jihadists’ relationships with al-Qaeda’s network, but it is important not to go to the other extreme by allowing members and enablers to avoid the consequences of their affiliations and actions.

There is a claim that al-Saghir attempted to get in touch with Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini), a jihadi cleric second only to al-Barqawi in his influence and probably the greater influence over JFS, but this ultimately did not happen. The interest here is that when al-Zarqawi connected to al-Saghir and al-Barqawi the first time, in Afghanistan just after the Red Army had left, it was through Othman and Khalid al-Agha (Abu al-Walid al-Ansari or Abu al-Walid al-Filistini), a senior al-Qaeda ideologue. This web of contacts gives an idea of the circles al-Saghir was in.

Al-Saghir might not formally have been a member of al-Qaeda. Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu Khalid al-Suri), appointed Ayman al-Zawahiri’s representative in Syria in 2013, was not a formal member of al-Qaeda, nor was Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, the conceptualizer and planner of the 9/11 attacks.

The closest analogy with al-Saghir is probably Rifai Taha, who was not sworn to al-Qaeda even though he mediated among JFS’s leadership circles. As JFS continues to grapple with its internal factions after the rebranding—notably the potential breakaway faction, grouped around Iyad al-Tubaysi (Abu Julaybib), Samir Hijazi (Abu Hammam al-Suri), and Bilal Khuraysat (Abu Khadija al-Urduni), who wanted to publicly maintain the Qaeda allegiance—al-Qaeda is calling on jihadi veterans to stop another internecine fitna of the kind that occurred with IS. Al-Saghir was likely part of this effort, though what the strength and nature of al-Saghir’s personal relationships—the essence of a network—were to al-Qaeda at the end can only be guessed at.

*        *        *        *

[1] Al-Zarqawi was, as a set of documents Fishman has released alongside his book shows, one of the six-member Arab Liaison Committee that was the official interlocutor with the Taliban. Setmariam was also on the Committee, as were al-Baqi, Ali al-Fakheri (Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi), Ali Abu-Zarah, and Muhammad Saleh. This was not ideal for Bin Ladin, since it meant al-Zarqawi could make his way in Taliban Afghanistan without al-Qaeda, but it balanced Setmariam, which was enough.

UPDATE (22 NOV 2016): The Pentagon confirmed that it had killed Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, also known by the kunya “Abu Afghan al-Masri,” in “a precision airstrike near Sarmada, Syria, on Nov. 18”. The statement said Abu Afghan was “a senior al-Qaeda in Syria leader”. That remains contested. Al-Saghir does not, for example, appear to have been a formal member of JFS, despite some claims he was a religious official within the organization.

UPDATE (9 DEC 2016): The discrepancy between the Pentagon’s description of the Abu Abdullah who has been killed and JFS’s description of al-Saghir has been resolved: the Abu Abdullah struck down on 18 November—though he was also Egyptian, also took part in the anti-Soviet jihad, and was also associated with Usama bin Ladin—was not al-Saghir. This was confirmed by three jihadi-salafists, one of them acquainted with both al-Saghir and the dead Abu Abdullah, plus a senior Middle Eastern intelligence official.

UPDATE (12 DEC 2016): A biography for Abu Abdullah/Abu Afghan al-Muhajir was released shortly after his demise on 18 November by Hani al-Siba’i, a jihadi ideologue based in London. According to al-Siba’i, Abu Afghan had been an official in the Egyptian Jihad organization, or Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which was led by Ayman al-Zawahiri until he merged EIJ with al-Qaeda core in 2001. Abu Afghan was involved, with al-Zawahiri, in setting up terrorist training camps in Taliban Afghanistan, according to al-Siba’i, and Abu Afghan also had a close relationship with Usama bin Ladin. In Syria, Abu Afghan had a senior position in Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Siba’i added:

[Abu Afghan] was occupied with graduating the largest number of jihadi youth, and his fingerprint is clear in the military operations against the Nusayri [Alawi, i.e. Assad] regime and its allies. He did not care about silly matters. He considered himself a soldier in the service of the mujahideen who wage jihad in the cause of Allah alone! He did not seek a position nor power despite being worthy and qualified for it. Indeed, he would say, “I came here to wage jihad in the cause of Allah and I pray that Allah will end my life as a martyr on this blessed land of Sham [Syria]”.

UPDATE (10 JAN 2017): The fourth edition of al-Qaeda’s Risalah magazine bid adieu to Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir (or Abu Afghan al-Muhajir).

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