Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, a Jordanian scholar who is one of the most influential voices in jihadist thought, warned on Wednesday that a radical Islamist group's declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria would deepen already bloody infighting among jihadists.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Sunday renamed itself the Islamic State and declared its leader "caliph" - the historical title of successors of the Prophet Mohammad who ruled the whole Muslim world - after its forces captured swathes of territory in a lightning drive across northern Iraq. "Will this caliphate be a sanctuary for every oppressed one and a refuge for every Muslim?" Maqdisi asked in a posting on his website. "Or will this creation take up a sword against Muslims who oppose it, and with it sweep away all the emirates that came before ... and nullify all the groups that do jihad in the cause of Allah in the different battlefields before them?"
Many in the online jihadist community had been waiting for Maqdisi's views on ISIL's advances, and Maqdisi himself said he had been lobbied by both advocates and opponents of the group. The self-taught intellectual is widely seen as the spiritual guide of al Qaeda's slain leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; the think tank of the U.S. West Point military academy has called him the most influential living Islamist mentor.
The timing of his release from prison in Jordan last month, where he had served five years, prompted some Jordanian officials to suggest that authorities fearful of militancy spilling across their own border had wanted to let him speak out against the Islamic State.
In his posting, Maqdisi contrasted the self-styled caliphate where killing of Muslims was widespread with what he called the benign Islamic emirates proclaimed by Chechen jihadists or Mullah Omar, spiritual leader of the Afghan Taliban. "When the brothers in the Caucasus declared their blessed emirate, they did not make anything obligatory on the Muslim masses ... nor did they shed inviolable blood for this name or in this name," he said.
The Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has urged jihadist factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance to it, in a direct challenge to regional leaders and to the central leadership of al Qaeda, which has disowned it.
Maqdisi said a worrying future now awaited jihadists fighting in Iraq and Syria under such a caliphate, where their lives would be threatened if they did not pledge allegiance. The Islamic State emerged as an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq before expanding into Syria after the start of the uprising against Assad three years ago. The expansion ignited battles with rival Islamist groups, including the al Qaeda-affiliate al-Nusra Front, in which thousands have died. The Islamic State seized control of large parts of Syria's eastern, oil-producing Euphrates River region, and since June 10 has added an expanse of adjoining population centres in Iraq.
Maqdisi said he feared the group would turn weapons captured from the Iraqi army against its rivals rather than against Shi'ite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's U.S.- and Iranian-backed government. Maqdisi has also said the Islamic State's extremist actions deviate from true Islam. "My eyes are not pleased with the shedding of Muslim blood by any party in the circle of Islam, even if they (the targets) are violators," he said. "... We are warning you against mutilating the religion of Allah and corrupting and sullying it with the blood of the Muslims and the mujahideen (holy warriors)," he said.
In a landmark statement in 2005, shortly after being released from an earlier prison term, Maqdisi, spoke out against his former mentor Zarqawi, denouncing al Qaeda-style suicide bombings against Shi'ite civilians in Iraq.