Alleged Coup Attempt Exposes Hazimite Faction Within Islamic State

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 5

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (source:

As Islamic State (IS) was losing its last strongholds in Syria to the advancing, U.S.-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there were reports of a coup attempt against its leader Abu Baker al-Baghdadi. The attempted ouster of the IS leader started with reports about fighting near the town of Hajin in Eastern Syria near the border with Iraq, which is one of the last IS-controlled areas to fall to the hands of the U.S.-backed forces. The plan included an attack on his convoy with an improvised explosive device (IED)—a direct attempt on the life of al-Baghdadi (Asharq al-Awsat, February 8).

The attempt had apparently failed, but it revealed the scale of the internal division between IS and a more radical group within it known as the Hazimite, named after the radical Saudi jihadist cleric Sheikh Ahmed Bin Omar al-Hazimi. Al-Hazimi was arrested in his home country and has been in prison since 2015. Media reports indicated that IS issued a warrant and put a bounty on an individual named Abu Muath al-Jazairi, who was accused of leading the ultra-radical Hazimite faction (Alsumaria, October 7, 2016). [1]

The recent events also indicate a possible new path for the group after losing all the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria. One of the features of this next period could be shaped by the rivalry between two or more IS factions over who is more genuine in its extremist ideology and practices.

Roots of Division

Abu Muath al-Jazairi is believed to be a prominent leader of the Hazimite faction. He is from Algeria and is better known as Abu Muath al-Asimi. [2] Hazimites and their supporters appear to hold high respect of al-Asimi and his writings. Since the arrest of al-Hazimi and the killing of other Hazimites, al-Asimi emerged as a Hazimite ideologue. [3] A considerable number of IS members from North African countries are believed to have become Hazimites. That could be tracked to the years al-Hazimi himself had spent in Tunisia after the Arab Spring upheaval that struck the region in 2011 and after (Noon Post, July 31, 2017).

The central point of the disagreement between Hazimites and the rest of IS concerns the notion of takfeer (excommunication). IS is well-known for its broad, extremist definition of who should be declared apostate or non-Muslim and consequently excommunicated, but Hazimites believe IS has not gone far enough. According to the doctrine introduced by al-Hazimi and promoted by those influenced by him, anyone who does not embrace a radical Salafist interpretation of Islam is not a Muslim. In their world, ignorance of their ideology or having no access to it is not an excuse for an individual or a group not to embrace al-Tawheed (literal meaning is monotheism, but for them, it is specifically Salafism and more specifically their interpretation of it). Accordingly, those who do not believe in al-Tawheed should be considered kafir (non-believers) and anyone who does not consider them kafir should be excommunicated as he is equally a nonbeliever (Almarjie-Paris, May 9, 2018).

This last notion has been alarming for many IS members and its leadership because it could lead to what is called “chain takfeer,” an endless chain of denunciation for the group’s members and even leaders who showed the slightest degree of tolerance. Before his killing in a coalition airstrike in 2015, Bahraini IS ideologue Turki al-Bin Ali wrote arguments against the Hazimites condemning their hard lines (Al-Quds, July 26, 2017).

In 2016, IS launched a purge against the Hazimites. Prominent Hazimite figures were executed but al-Asimi survived and is believed to be living in Turkey now. He has written a number of essays against IS leadership. As the military campaigns against IS intensified and reached the largest two cities it controlled—Mosul in Iraq and its self-declared capital Raqqa in Syria—IS communication lines became difficult to maintain. In an attempt to tackle that challenge, al-Baghdadi delegated some of his power to a body called the Delegated Committee and decreased his visibility significantly in order to avoid being detected. The Delegated Committee, which was created to go around logistical and field challenges, found itself in the middle of the theological debate of who should be kafir and what were the limits, if any. In May 2017, the Delegated Committee issued a statement that was perceived to be an acknowledgment of the Hazimi doctrine. At one point, even an article in the IS weekly publication al-Naba attacked and condemned prominent jihadists like al-Qaeda’s Attiyah al-Libi as kafir (Jihadology, June 15, 2017). That implied that al-Baghdadi himself might be considered kafir as he previously praised al-Libi. That led al-Baghdadi to appear again to take back control of his group which was seemingly about to disintegrate. He reshuffled the Delegated Committee, removing members and putting more trusted men in charge (Al-Quds, October 21, 2017). However, by the time al-Baghdadi introduced his new measures the Hazimites seemed to have morphed into a distinct, new entity that is not part of IS. That led to a significant question—will the Hazimites split completely from IS or try to take it over?


Since the inception of the Hazimite group, the question was if it was part of IS or a new group. The writings of al-Asimi indicate the latter, but the recent attempt on al-Baghdadi’s life suggest otherwise. The appeal of the Caliphate figure has been quite attractive to jihadists around the world, and convinced many to declare allegiance to IS and consider themselves parts of the movement. IS might be very weak and lost in Iraq and Syria, but there are other regions that could be well suited to become its new headquarters, helping maintain the claim it persists and holds territory, or according to its infamous slogan, is “remaining and expanding.”

The Hazimites have already gained a base of support in West Africa. The leader of the Nigerian radical group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau is already leading a faction that was condemned by IS as too extremist (Mauri News, November 21, 2017; See Militant Leadership Monitor, January 4).

The Hazimite ideology is more suitable for an age of total violence without any consideration of governing a territory. Yet the symbolism of the Caliphate has been central in the IS’ appeal to jihadists. By eliminating al-Baghdadi, Hazimites could well be poised to take over leadership of the IS heartland in Iraq and Syria in order to subsequently inherent influence over its franchises in North and West Africa.

Unlike in 2016-2017, IS and its leadership obviously do not have the capacity to quell a better-prepared coup attempt. One of the main reasons behind IS’ domination in Syria was that it was less prone to splits compared to other militant groups. By moving to areas controlled by the Syrian government, IS will need to face new challenges that are not similar to the environment of 2011-2014. Groups of IS fighters have reportedly already moved to the areas controlled by the Syrian regime, fleeing the SDF’s final campaigns against their last remaining pockets. The IS element in the Syrian civil war was vital to the survival of the Syrian regime which always wanted the war to be portrayed as a confrontation between a secular government and savage jihadists who threaten not only the regime, but the world. Therefore, the regime would not accept being excluded from the U.S. and SDF endgame. Both IS and the Hazimites will likely try to initiate new bases or revive old ones in Syria.

Iraq, however, remains IS and its leaders’ favorite retreat. More than a year and a half since the Iraqi government declared victory against IS, the group is not completely defeated. It lost all the territory it held in Iraq, but a new phase of IS insurgency has emerged. Despite deployments of thousands of Iraqi armed forces and Shia militias in the areas IS controlled, the group is still able to launch attacks and destabilize the area. The Iraqization of the IS leadership, which was introduced by al-Baghdadi, was vital to the group’s ascendancy. It will likely be key to any strategy of survival and revival. But that will always require keeping the position of the Caliphate intact and occupied by al-Baghdadi or one of his inner circle when he dies. The Hazimites have proven to represent an imminent threat to that.


[1] The bounty is new but the warrant was issued in 2016. See November 7, 2016بالوثيقة-داعش-يصدر-مذكرات-قبض-واعدام-بال/ar

[2] Al-Jazairi means the Algerian in Arabic. Al-Asimi means the one who comes from al-Asima which means the capital in Arabic and that is a common word Algerians use to refer to their capital.

[3] See writings about al-Asimi July 7, 2016