Blind Eagle, By Brian Fairchild:
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s power to motivate and attract tens of thousands of radicalized Muslims is largely based on the fact that he has transcended the role of a terrorist commander and has become an Islamic religious and political icon – the new “Caliph” of the re-established “Caliphate”.
He doesn’t claim to be a prophet, but he claims nothing less than to be the rightful political and religious heir to the Prophet Muhammad, and he often draws parallels between himself and Muhammad and other prophets, to support these claims and to legitimize his strict religious ideology.
On July 5, 2014, al-Baghdadi made his video debut at the Great Mosque of al-Nouri in Mosul, Iraq wearing Islamic garb and sporting a long beard, and he made a speech that was carefully crafted to draw parallels between himself and Muhammad. The speech occurred during the Muslim month of Ramadan, and so he began his comments by stating that “Ramadan is a month to wage jihad”, noting that the Prophet Muhammad fought many battles against the “polytheists” during this month.
The implications of this reference sent a particularly potent message to radical Muslims because they know that Muhammad led Islam’s two most important battles during Ramadan – the very first battle, called the Battle of Badr, and the Battle of Mecca. According to Islamic history, Muhammad faced overwhelming odds in his battle with the powerful Quraysh tribe at the desert oasis of Badr, but was victorious because of Allah’s divine intervention. At the subsequent Battle of Mecca, he defeated the Quraysh with an Army of 10,000. The city fell with almost no resistance. The victory at Mecca consolidated Muhammad’s power and caused the surrounding tribes to join him. The few remaining opposing tribes were quickly subdued.
The parallels to al-Baghdadi are unmistakable. As he spoke at the Great Mosque of al-Nouri his total force was estimated to be around 10,000, the same number Muhammad fielded in the Battle of Mecca. Like Muhammad, he emerged out of the desert and, against all odds, defeated a much larger and better equipped enemy, causing many to flee without firing a shot. He consolidated his power by creating the “caliphate”, and the surrounding tribes joined him. Finally, he proclaimed that these victories were only possible because he and his troops “have been bestowed upon by Allah to achieve victory” – divine intervention.
The comparisons continue. In the Islamic State’s September 21, 2014 statement, al Baghdadi calls Muslims to emulate the Prophet Muhammad’s historic hijrah (emigration) from Mecca to Medina by emigrating from their homes to defend the new Islamic State. He proclaims that the coming fight with America is a decisive moment in Islamic history (just as Muhammad’s fight was) – a moment in which the fate of all Muslims hang in the balance, and he exhorts Muslims to rise to their brothers’ defense because:
- “They are facing a battle which is of the decisive, critical battles in the history of Islam. If the Muslims are defeated, they will be humiliated in such a manner that no humiliation compares to. And if the Muslims are victorious – and this will be the case by Allah’s permission – they will be honored with all honor by which the Muslims will return to being the masters of the world and kings of the earth…”
These comparisons resonate deeply in Salafi-jihadis who believe that there is no higher religious calling than to emulate the Prophet Muhammad’s methodology to establish Allah’s religion on earth, and this is precisely what al Baghdadi calls them to do. He emphasizes their piousness by stating that he sees “the Quran walking alive amongst” them, and then unambiguously tells them that they are directly following in Muhammad’s footsteps:
- “O soldiers of the Islamic State and its sons everywhere, listen and comprehend. If the people belie you, reject your state and your call, and mock your caliphate, then know that your Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) was belied. His call was rejected. He was mocked. If your people fight you, accuse you with the worst of accusations, and describe you with the worst of all traits, then know that the people of the Prophet (blessings and peace be upon him) fought him, expelled him, and accused him with matters worse than those you have been accused with. If the parties have gathered against you, then know they gathered against your Prophet before (blessings and peace be upon him).”
Muslim traditions tell how the pious Muhammad was able to overcome vastly superior military forces because of Allah’s divine intervention on his behalf, and thus, in the September 21, 2014 statement, al Baghdadi tells his followers that, because of their piousness and strict religious observance, Allah is on their side and that victory against America is assured because Allah wills it:
- “Allah has given you might and honor after your humiliation. He has made you rich after your poverty. And He has aided you despite your weakness and small numbers. He showed you that victory is from Him, the Glorified.He grants it to whomever He wills and whenever He wills…Therefore Allah will give you victory. Indeed, Allah will give you victory. By Allah, Allah will give you victory…So know that – by Allah – we fear not the swarms of planes, nor ballistic missiles, nor drones, nor satellites, nor battleships, nor weapons of mass destruction. How could we fear them, while Allah the Exalted has said: ‘If Allah should aid you, no one can overcome you; but if He should forsake you, who is there that can aid you after Him? And upon Allah let the believers rely” – Qur’an Chapter 3: Verse 160.
In addition to drawing parallels between himself and the Prophet Muhammad, al Baghdadi also uses the Prophet Noah to legitimize his particularly severe religious rule. In the second issue of his official publication Dabiq magazine titled The Flood , al Baghdadi uses the story of Noah and the Ark to legitimize his demand that Muslims live according to a strict literal interpretation of Sharia law. In the article, the Prophet Noah is described as an uncompromising prophet who gave his people a single, but profound, choice:
- “He didn’t say to them, for example: “I have come to you with the truth, and your leaders are calling you to falsehood, so you are free to choose whether to follow me or to follow your leaders.” In fact, he didn’t even say anything to the effect of: “If you follow me then you would be correct, and if you follow your leaders then you would be mistaken.” Nor did he say anything to the effect of: “If you follow me you will be saved, and if you oppose me and follow your leaders then your reckoning is with Allah, and I have done what is required of me and you are free to choose.” Rather, he told them with full clarity: “It’s either me or the flood.” The parallel between Noah and al Baghdadi couldn’t be more obvious, especially given the fact that the Dabiq article was titled: It’s Either the Islamic State or the Flood.
It is al Baghdadi’s uncompromising religious belief that is the very crux of the jihadi civil war between al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri’s Jahbat al Nusra (also called the Nusra Front), and al Baghdadi’s Islamic State.
Al Baghdadi is much more religiously zealous and demanding than Zawahiri. Zawahiri is flexible and pragmatic in matters of ideology, preferring to slowly and carefully educate the Muslim community to accept Sharia law, and he is willing to form pragmatic alliances with non-jihadi organizations to further al Qaeda’s interests.
Al Baghdadi, on the other hand, has no such tolerance for coddling the Muslim masses or working with infidels, believing rather that it is his mission to confront Muslims, including Zawahiri and the Nusra Front, on matters of religion:
- “it’s upon us…to eradicate the principle of “free choice,” and to not deceive the people in an attempt to seek their pleasure…Rather, we must confront them with the fact that they’ve turned away from the religion…and that we’re completely ready to stand in the face of anyone who attempts to divert us from our commitmentto making the religion of Allah triumphant over all other religions, and that we will continue to fight the people of deviation and misguidance until we die trying to make the religion triumphant.”
That al Baghdadi and his followers have drawn this religious line in the sand against al Qaeda is documented by the following developments:
In late April 2014, a group of nine al Qaeda emirs from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran defected from al Qaeda to the Islamic State. They justified their defection by indirectly accusing Zawahiri and the al-Nusra Front of infidelity and apostasy:
- “the forces of infidelity and apostasy quickly sowed the seeds of hypocrisy, using new groups under Islamic sounding names to be a rival and an obstacle to the Islamic state…the group did not have any courage to enforce judgments over those who disobey sharia, under the pretext of avoiding a clash with the people or due to their inability and incapacity…”
A few days later, al Baghdadi’s spokesman, Sheikh Muhammad al-Adnani, echoed these sentiments stating:
- “Al Qaeda, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan, deviated from the rightful course…It is not a dispute about who to kill or who to give your allegiance. It is a question of religious practices being distorted and an approach veering off the right path.”
In The Flood, al Baghdadi specifically criticized the Nusra Front and Zawahiri for regularly breaking Sharia law in matters of religion and by forging alliances with organizations the Islamic State considers to be infidel, such as the Syrian National Coalition and the Islamic Front, and for justifying this religious laxity as a pragmatic and temporary necessity for “the sake of Jihad”.
Also in The Flood, al Baghdadi quotes Salafi scholar Ibnul Qayyim who said: “The pillars of kufr (religious infidelity) are four: arrogance, envy, anger, and desire”, and then al Baghdadi goes on to accuse al Qaeda of all four:
- “Whoever wants to know how a mujāhid (jihad) group fī sabīlillah (for Allah) becomes a militant group fighting fī sabīlit-tāghūt (for corrupt regimes) then let him review history, and let him know that a man’s love for leadership,wealth, and personal opinion becomes pride. Pride becomes envy. Envy becomes arrogance. Arrogance becomes hatred. Hatred becomes enmity. Enmity becomes contradiction of the rival.
So confident is he in his religious superiority that in March 2014, al Baghdadi challenged the Nusra Front, to Mubahala – an Islamic ritual that implores Allah to choose between two rival factions by showing his favor for one while cursing the other. In Muslim tradition, the repeated military success of one of the parties can only occur if Allah wills it, and al Baghdadi believes that his series of successes proves that Allah has chosen the Islamic State over the Nusra Front as the winner.
Analysts frequently try to explain why so many radicalized Muslims flock to Iraq and Syria. The reasons they stipulate often include that these misguided Muslims are simply alienated youth, thrill seekers, or are attracted by “jihad cool”. In actual fact, Salafi-jihadi fighters are religious zealots, and they are attracted to al Baghdadi as their religious and political leader precisely because he is seen by them to be the active defender of what they consider to be “true” Islam. Tens of thousands have already performed hijrah to embrace his religious and political leadership, and this number can be expected to grow exponentially as al Baghdadi continues to “defend” Islam.
Brian Fairchild bio.