ISIS faces widening split along ideological lines

By Ahmed al-Sharqawi in Cairo


Egypt's air force has been conducting airstrikes at 'Islamic State of Iraq and Syria' hideouts in north Sinai in an effort to root out the group from the area. ISIS affiliates in Egypt are facing growing internal divisions over ideological differences due to the impact of the successive blows dealt to the group. [Photo courtesy of the Egyptian Armed Forces spokesman]

As a growing ideological rift within the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) emerges, a number of elements demanded that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his leadership apparatus review the principles upon which the group was founded.

After losing a large number of senior leaders, the ISIS leader commissioned an committee to administer the affairs of the territories where the group has branches.

The new committee is dominated by hardliners, and has met with resistance from some within the group who feel it has gone too far in its attempt to codify and enforce the application of an extreme ideology.

In a series of social media posts, these dissidents accused ISIS leaders of being excessive in their application of hudud punishment, to an extent that has caused them to lose their popular bases of support.

They also demanded the dissolution of the committee, and of al-Nabaa newspaper, ISIS’s mouthpiece, which had set forth its doctrine.

They further claimed the committee had been founded on erroneous religious principles, and accused it of enforcing erroneous jurisprudential principles and hadith interpretations.

In response, the committee threatened the dissenting elements with punishment and even execution, describing them as kharijites.

Meanwhile, other social media users entered the fray in support of the committee, issuing their own statement on September 16th, titled, "The committee and the caliphate’s media represent us".

They declared their support for the committee, and rejected the accusation of excessiveness and extremism directed at its members.

Two ideological camps

In Egypt in particular, ISIS-affiliated groups are split into two ideological camps.

Some see a need for a return to al-Qaeda’s doctrine that does not accuse Sunni Muslims of kufr (unbelieving, being infidels).

Others advocate the ultra extreme principles adopted by ISIS at its inception, and demand that the group confront Muslims and non-Muslims alike who do not support ISIS.

In a statement issued in May, ISIS called on its detractors to stop attacking its decision to continue fighting Muslims and others who oppose it, and to stop accusing it of excessive violence. It also threatened to kill those would consider reneging on their pledge of allegiance to the group for abandoning the faith.

This alienated some fighters and caused them to refuse to fight alongside ISIS.

The detractors replied by questioning the religious sources used by the committee and the competence of its members, and demanded its dissolution on the grounds they do not have the necessary religious qualifications.

'Traitors and foreign agents'

In posts on several social media accounts, ISIS accused members who call for a change in its principles of being traitors and agents of intelligence agencies who aim to destroy the group, said Ahmed Ban, an expert on extremist groups.

"ISIS is facing the possibility of many of its elements going back on their pledge of allegiance on the grounds that the group’s leader himself, al-Baghdadi, has deviated from the ideology of al-Qaeda," he told Al-Mashareq.

The group also is grappling with other problems "including the fact that its elements are fleeing the battlefields in Syria, Iraq and Egypt", he said.

"Some members accuse [al-Baghdadi] of excessiveness in his takfir of Sunni Muslims who are not helping [ISIS] in its war against ruling regimes in Muslim countries," Ban said.

Internal attacks on al-Baghdadi and his leadership apparatus prompted the ISIS leader to establish new branches in Iraq, Syria and Egypt in order to replace those who might withdraw their allegiance, he said.

In Egypt, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis was originally an affiliate of al-Qaeda, said military expert and retired Egyptian army officer Maj. Gen. Talaat Moussa.

"The reason it swore allegiance to ISIS was the weakness of al-Qaeda’s financial resources; the latter’s inability to finance, support and provide it weapons," he told Al-Mashareq.

"The pledge of allegiance of ISIS-affiliated groups in Sinai to al-Baghdadi hinges on his ability to continue to provide them with the necessary support," he said.

Under fire in Egypt

The Egyptian army’s killing of three top ISIS leaders in Sinai in raids and airstrikes drove the remaining elements to abandon ISIS’s ideology, said Mahmoud Nasr, a journalist specialising in the affairs of extremist groups.

These leaders are Auda al-Hamadeen, killed in an August 28th airstrike along with 13 others, Abu Anas al-Ansari, who was killed in March and Abu Khalid al-Maqdisi, who was killed last September.

"Those leaders were disseminating ISIS’s ideology to extremist elements in Egypt," and after their deaths, the remaining elements began leaning away from that hardline ideology, he said.

"A visit to the website of Amaq agency, ISIS’s official mouthpiece, reveals there have been only three Egypt-related statements posted in the last two months."

Nasr said this reveals "the impact of the successive blows dealt to ISIS in Sinai in particular and Egypt in general and the inability of the groups in Sinai to secure a direct channel of communication with ISIS in Iraq and Syria".

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