Baghdadi fends off challenges for leadership
Beirut - A new jihadist is emerging in northern Syria, commanding the battle for Aleppo. He is not Syrian but from Saudi Arabia, groomed at the hands of a Salafist cleric from al-Qaeda who mentored one of the 9/11 hijackers.
Abdullah al-Muhaysini is the supreme judge of Jaysh al-Fateh (Army of Conquest), the Islamic militia that has controlled the city of Idlib in north-western Syria since 2015.
He is challenging well-established Syrian jihadists such as Abu Mohammad al-Jolani of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front) and, perhaps, even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Iraqi caliph of the Islamic State (ISIS), for leadership of the jihadist cause.
All three share the goal of bringing down the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad and setting up a theocracy — or an Islamic state — ruled by a caliphate, according to their understanding of the Quran. But these men agree on practically nothing else.
Jolani said he is more entitled to rule the Syrian jihadist community simply because he is the only Syrian among the commanders and because his power base is exclusively Syrian, unlike the warriors led by Baghdadi and Muhaysini, who are a mix of Saudis, Kuwaitis, Chechens, Tunisians and Chinese.
Baghdadi is three steps ahead of them. He declared his caliphate and called on all Muslims to pledge allegiance in June 2014. Its capital is the Syrian city of Raqqa on the Euphrates river.
The caliphate boasts all the trappings of statehood: a functioning bureaucracy, a powerful intelligence service, an army, a media department and a treasury with oil money.
Thanks to its sheer brutality, ISIS has received more media publicity than all the other jihadist groups and affiliate branches have sprouted in the Sinai peninsula, Gaza, Libya, Nigeria, pledging allegiance directly to him.
Muhaysini, the Saudi newcomer, is charting new territory on the jihadist map, venturing into metropolitan Aleppo, where neither Jolani nor Baghdadi have gone.
He commands a major rebel counteroffensive that broke a blockade imposed by the Syrian Army and Russian air power, increasing his popularity among Syrian jihadists as a leader who can deliver.
Jolani played a lesser role in the Aleppo fighting and Baghdadi nothing at all, much to the dismay of their Syrian supporters. If Muhaysini manages to secure eastern Aleppo, he could skyrocket to jihadist fame, perhaps outdoing his rivals.
Baghdadi has already won his jihadist war medals, thanks to the cities he controls, ranging from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor in Syria to Mosul in Iraq.
True, he has suffered setbacks, such as losing Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra and Manbij in Syria in recent months, but he still controls more land than the other two contenders combined and can boast ISIS branches across the world, something that neither Muhaysini nor Jolani can claim.
Jolani rules only Idlib but not alone or uncontested. He shares power with Jaysh al-Fatah and Muhaysini.
The one thing that makes Baghdadi secure is that he has something that Muhaysini and Jolani do not — the ability to claim the Islamic caliphate.
According to the tenets of mainstream Sunni Islam, a caliph can only come from the Quraysh, the Meccan tribe of the Prophet Mohammad. Muhaysini is from al- Qassim, in the heart of the Arabian peninsula and Jolani is from Syria. That makes both men officially ineligible.
Shia Muslims claim that the caliph must also be directly related by blood to the Prophet to be considered ahl al-Bayt (“of the Prophet’s house”) — another prerequisite neither man fulfils.
Baghdadi has always signed his speeches and communiqués as “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurashi al-Hasani”.
That means he is of the Quraysh and a descendant of Hasan, great-grandson of the Prophet. ISIS’s media arm has published a family tree to bolster his claim, although this lineage is strongly contested by respected Islamic centres such as al-Azhar University in Cairo and the Grand Umayyad Mosque of Damascus.
There is only one school of Islamic thought that waves these strict conditions for becoming caliph, the Hanafis. The Ottomans went so far as to take it up as an official creed for 400 years to justify their claim to the caliphate since none of their sultans were from Mecca or the Quraysh.
But the Hanafi school is too liberal for the Salafists. Baghdadi, Jolani and Muhaysini write it off as heretical and liberal, preferring the rigid and fanatical Wahhabi version of Islam.
This puts a low ceiling on the ambitions of Muhaysini and Jolani. Despite their impressive battlefield achievements, they can never really challenge Baghdadi.
No matter what they do, they can never become the caliph, whereas for many, Baghdadi already is and this title can take him places in the Muslim world that Muhaysini and Jolani can only dream about.