Propaganda Wars: 'State of Baghdadi' and 'Jolani Front'
15 Jul 2015
Jihadi propaganda is increasingly focused on undermining the claims of rivals, whilst demonstrating its own legitimacy. This briefing note examines two recent publications demonstrating this trend.
The gaping fissure in contemporary global jihadism is demonstrated by the publication of two propaganda magazines by rival groups this month, both of which are predominantly dedicated to rebutting the tactics and rhetoric of the other group. Within two weeks of each other, both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, released English-language propaganda magazines, geared towards demonstrating the illegitimacy of the other to a non-Arab audience.
While ISIS continues to demand the allegiance of all Muslims, claiming to be a living, breathing Islamic state, Jabhat al-Nusra presents itself as fighting a jihad alongside other groups, in contrast to ISIS' divisive struggle.
Al-Risala ('the letter'), the first English-language magazine of Jabhat al-Nusra, claims to be "aimed at presenting to our dear readers a clear presentation of Islam, as practiced and understood by the companions of the Prophet Muhammad." In doing this, they also set out to "dispel from the minds of the Muslims some of the mistaken notions and doubts promoted by the kuffar [unbelievers], hypocrites and deviant groups present amongst our midst, who aim to distort and destroy the clear and pure message of Islam and Jihad in the way of Allah."
The group works to preempt ISIS criticism of the legitimacy of the Islamist Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) coalition, in which Jabhat al-Nusra plays a leading role and which has had major successes against the Syrian regime in 2015. As such, the groups that comprise it are described by the Jabhat al-Nusra leader as "all Muslim, even if they differ somewhat from us," admitting that "these are groups which have some mistakes, we overlook these mistakes, because of the enormous severity of the battle."
Jabhat al-Nusra presents ISIS as "fighting for a good cause" but "truly misguided."
The magazine is relentless in its criticism of ISIS, which Jabhat al-Nusra portrays as "fighting for a good cause" but is also regarded as "truly misguided." Al-Risala claims that ISIS has "made their khilafa [caliphate] a sword [that] splits the Ummah and not a khilafa [that] gathers the Ummah [the global Muslim community] together."
Jabhat al-Nusra accuses ISIS, or as it is pejoratively called "Dawlat [state of] al-Baghdadi," of "destroying the Jihad and splitting the ranks of the Mujahideen" in Afghanistan, Yemen, and, most recently, in the Caucasus (the group recent declared a 'province' in the region).
It also directly responds to ISIS' accusations that Jabhat al-Nusra militants are 'Sahawat' (a jihadi shorthand for Western collaborators), asking how the group can be accused of "want[ing] a secular state or a democracy and that we are Sahawat when our blood is spilled for the sake of Allah." These very accusations were included in the latest Dabiq.
An entire section of al-Risala 'Khilafa: One Year On,' headed by a cartoon of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is dedicated to discrediting ISIS' claims to be an Islamic state, and in particular Baghdadi's assertion that he is emir al-momineen (the commander of the faithful). This section is littered with explanations of even basic religious terminology, including the minbar ("Pulpit in the masjid [mosque] that the imam (prayer leader) stands on to deliver sermons"), suggesting an, at least partly, religiously illiterate audience.
Jabhat al-Nusra not only criticise the so-called Caliph's legitimacy, saying many "gave Bay'ah [declared allegiance] to Baghdadi based on emotions" during a "confusing time" for global jihadism, but also ISIS' tactics: "They [have] painted the religion and the jihadi movement with red blood until all people began to think that Jihad only consists of slaughter and killing."
Dabiq attacks Jabhat al-Nusra's softness towards 'apostates'.
Concern is raised over the number of former-Baathist commanders in ISIS' top ranks (using an infographic taken from the Washington Post), and the group is accused of forgetting the example of al-Qaeda leaders such as Osama Bin Laden in its operations and tactics. Another image later in the magazine, apparently inspired by the film 300, prescribes that the "[Caliph] should be the shield of the Ummah, not the sword against it."
ISIS seems to embrace all of these criticisms in the latest issue of its propaganda magazine Dabiq, released on 13 July 2015.
It uses the example of Jabhat al-Nusra's 'weak' treatment of Syria's Christian community as a proof of the group's religious illegitimacy. Quoting extensively from an Al Jazeera interview in May 2015 with Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, ISIS accuses the group, in a typical criticism, of "not ruling by the Shariah right now and not imposing jizyah on the Christians." The jizyah is a special tax levied on people deemed to be monotheistic 'people of the book,' allowing them to retain their faith in Muslim lands. ISIS famously enforced the jizyah on Mosul's Christians when it seized the city in 2014, offering the city's ancient religious community the choice between paying, converting, fleeing, or dying.
In a similar vein, Dabiq attacks Jabhat al-Nusra's softness towards the 'apostate' Druze minority (although in reality Jabhat al-Nusra's treatment of the Druze has been ruthless). According to ISIS, unlike Christians "Druze cannot be considered ahl dhimmah... [eligible for jizyah] and are worse than the Jews and Christians," with ISIS comparing Jabhat al-Nusra's supposed protection of the Druze to that of Israel. Drawing together these criticism is an interview with a Jabhat al-Nusra defector who condemns the "contradictions in the methodology and policies of the Jolani front."
As propaganda magazines such as these become increasingly reactive and defensive, and as the campaign to win hearts and minds in global jihadism heats up, jihadi groups appear to be growing into the very caricatures that their rivals paint of them.
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