On October 27 an open letter signed by a number of prominent Jordanian Salafists and warning of a new zealot takfiri group in Jordan circulated on jihadist web-forums (alhesbahweb.net, October 27; muslm.net, October 27). Following the takfiri practice of condemning fellow Muslims as apostates or infidels, the letter stated that several members of the new group consider Awqaf imams (religious leaders belonging to Jordan’s official religious body) to be “kafirs” (infidels). “One of them proudly announced that he has not prayed after any of those [sic] imams in the last five years, another one said that he has not in the last ten.” Other members of this group, based in the Jordanian town of Zarqa, go so far as to consider all government employees “infidels.” The open letter concluded with a warning to Muslims against listening to these extremists and a call to Islamic web-forums to deny this “wayward” group a platform to publish their writings.
The “Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places” in Jordan is responsible for the appointment and supervision of all imams. Thus, some Salafi-Jihadis consider these imams government employees rather than religious clerics.
Zarqa was the hometown of Ahmad Fadhil Nazal al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Located 25 km northeast of Amman, Zarqa is the second largest city of Jordan. Many Jordanian factories as well as several armed forces bases are located there, Recently, however, Zarqa has been considered one of the strongholds of Salafi-Jihadism in Jordan (al-Hayat, January 22, 2005).
The significance of the letter is emphasized by its list of signatories, which includes those regarded as the “founding fathers” of the Salafi-Jihadi movement in Jordan – Loqman Reyalat, Jarrah Qaddah, Abu Soraqa and the well-known Salafist ideologue, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
This letter comes as a response to several articles and books written by the new takfiri group criticizing al-Maqdisi for what they call his “softened” position against the Jordanian government since he his release from prison on medical grounds last March. The critics accused al-Maqdisi followers of being connected to the Jordanian security services and even raised the possibility of al-Maqdsi renouncing his ideas and initiating a Muraja’at (review). Several other shaykhs, most notably Saudi Arabia’s Salman al-Ouda and Egypt’s Dr. Fadl (a.k.a. Sayed Imam Abdulaziz al-Sharif, have initiated Muraja’at in the past,(Terrorism Monitor, December 10, 2007; Minbar al-Muslim, mnbr2.net, October 8).
A document uploaded on jihadi web-forums entitled “Al-Maqdisi Stepping Back” criticized the shaykh for not declaring the Ministry of Awqaf to be an infidel organization representative of political authority (muslm.net, 6 October). Al-Maqdisi responded to these accusations in an article on his web site; “My First Appearance on the Web After a Long Absence in the Prisons” (almaqdese.net, September 2008). In another article entitled “Steadfastness in the Time of Retrogression,” al-Maqdisi reminded those who said that his release was due to a deal with “God’s enemies” and those “who are looking forward to preachers and mujahidin backtracking… that there are constants in our religion. Everybody …whether he is friend or enemy… must know there will be no compromise on them, no option even though necks are cut and beloved people destroyed or dispersed.”
Others have also come to al-Maqdisi’s defense. At the end of October the mainstream Salafi-Jihadis launched a campaign to defend Shaykh al-Maqdisi – Iraq’s al-Fallujah web-forum devoted a page to defending al-Maqdisi (faloja1.net or al-faloja.info). One of the participants in the forum re-published a March 2008 book written by one of his sympathizers, Abu Hamam Bakr Bin Abdul Aziz al-Athari. Entitled Al-saif al-muhand fi munasart shikhana Abu Muhammad (The Indian Sword to advocate our Shaykh Abu Muhammad), the work illustrates the history of al-Maqdisi and describes his reputation among other religious Salafi-Jihadi shaykhs and clerics.
London-based Islamist Hani al-Sibai’i published what he called “My testimony on al-Maqdisi” on al-Maqdisi’s web site, describing him as one of the most prominent Sunni figures, widely acknowledged as a scholar and “a thorn in the throat of the tyrants and their sympathizers.” According to Sibai’i al-Magdisi has not renounced his beliefs despite pressure from numerous sources (almeqreze.net, October 22).
The division among Salafi-Jihadis in Jordan started in mid-2005 when al-Maqdisi directed an open letter entitled “Munasara wa Munasaha” (Advocating and Advising) to the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, criticizing him for targeting Shiite and Christian civilians and accusing al-Zarqawi’s organization of being infiltrated by Jordanian security. The shaykh also emphasized the importance of mujahideen leadership being in Iraqi hands. A few weeks later, al-Zarqawi responded to al-Maqdisi’s letter, arguing that the latter’s criticism did not have a negative impact on him but instead sabotaged the “jihad in Iraq.” These accusations caused divisions to erupt between sympathizers of both parties, a situation intensified by the recent emergence of the so-called the “Neo-Zarqawists.”
The situation was always not so hostile. Shaykh al-Maqdisi (real name Isam Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi) was once the mentor of al-Zarqawi as part of what became known as the Baya’at al-Imam Group and both men were arrested for their actions by the Jordanian authorities in 1994. Born in Nablus in 1959, al-Magdisi moved to Kuwait as a child and later undertook studies in the University of Mosul in Iraq. After that al-Maqdisi traveled through Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he met various jihadi groups and wrote some of his most famous books, such as Millat ‘Ibrahim wa da’awet al-anbiya wa’l murseleen (The Creed of Abraham and the Preaching of the Prophets and the Deliverers) and Al-kawashif al-jaliyya fi kufr al-dawla al-Sa`udiyya (The Shameful Actions Manifest in the Saudi State’s Disbelief).
In 1992 al-Maqdisi returned to Jordan and started to preach his ideology, which quickly spread among some youngsters. The shaykh criticized Jordanian officials, denouncing their rule as illegitimate and opposed to the Shari`a. A combination of direct rhetoric and well-circulated stories of how he confronted the judges and his interrogators by calling them tyrants and disbelievers, soon established al-Maqdisi as a charismatic ideologue and leader of Salafi-Jiahdism.
Similar posts to those mentioned above have increased noticeably in jihadi forums, indicating that the division between the “neo-Zarqawists” and the “Maqdisists” is becoming deeper and suggesting that the radical faction of Salafi-Jihadis is growing in Zarqa. Although the mainstream Salafi-Jihadis (as represented by the Maqdisists) are fighting back, the neo-Zarqawists see themselves as inheriting the legacy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which may play a major role in attracting young extremists to this new faction.