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The Death Of Islamic State (IS) Leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurashi: A Window To Stop The Cycle Of Violence Ideology – Analysis

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The voice of counterterrorism and counter narrative advocates needs to be loud enough to challenge the group’s intellectual capability by addressing the misguided so-called ‘prophetic methodology’, which the group claims to be following. One such concept is that of bai’at, or the pledge of allegiance.

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In February 2022, IS so-called second caliph Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was killed during an operation by US Special Operation Forces in Syria’s Idlib province. To reinforce unity, online chatter, especially in the Indonesian pro-IS community, stresses the importance of preserving the bai’at to al-Qurashi and continuing with their routine of spreading propagandas or mounting attacks. Earlier this month, IS announced the appointment of Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi as the third caliph. Hundreds of pro-IS supporters in Western Africa Province (ISWAP), Somalia, The Levant, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan (ISKP) and East Asia have pledged their allegiance to the new leader. It is important to note that the starting point of support is usually preceded by a bai’at.

What is Bai’at

Bai’at is an Arabic term that symbolizes a pledge of allegiance and loyalty. The importance of the bai’at for terrorist groups can be discerned from Bin Laden pledging his allegiance to the former Taliban’s leader Mulla Omar in response to United Nations imposition of sanctions on the group in February 2001. It is similar to the notion and practice of pledging allegiance and loyalty to a state. Contrary to conventional wisdom, bai’at predated Islam and was common among Arabs in pre-Islamic Arabia. It usually preluded a pact between tribes to establish security in the absence of state power. 

Extremist Practice of Bai’at in Modern Day

The Southeast Asia offers many instances of the practice of bai’at among Islamist extremists. Singapore made a multiple arrests in 2001-02 when it discovered a clandestine cell linked to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Investigations revealed individuals had performed bai’at to either JI or Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leaders. 

In Malaysia, Gagak Hitam or Black Crow cell led by Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi, who was killed in a drone attack in April 2017 in Syria, also declared bai’at to IS first caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Evidence also pointed out cases where IS supporters gave the pledge online via the Telegram chat app. 

In July 2014, JI spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, surrounded by militants in the maximum-security prison in Nusa Kambangan island, Indonesia, declared his allegiance to IS. One month later, dozens of individuals appeared in a video performing bai’at to then IS leader al-Baghdadi at an event held at the hotel of the State Islamic University (UIN Syarif Hidayatullah) in Jakarta. As far terrorism financing is concerned, the bai’at event at the university managed to garner US$3,500 of donation money.

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On 23 July 2014, an Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) splinter group under Basilan wing operations leader Isnilon Hapilon put out a YouTube video showing ASG members in Bicutan prison in the Philippines pledging allegiance to IS. IS also released several videos showing acceptance of bai’at by various battalions under Hapilon in December 2015 and June 2016. The repercussion of these activities was evident when the Marawi Siege erupted almost a year later. 

In essence, bai’at, as professed by the likes of IS, is an existential threat. It is the tie that binds the commitment and loyalty of IS supporters regardless of the group’s condition. They were taught that breaking the oath will result in divine retribution. This ‘retribution’ threat could be the best explanation for the online chatter in the Indonesian pro-IS community that stresses the importance of preserving the bai’at to al-Qurashi upon hearing the news of his death. The persistence of IS supporters to live out their bai’at needs further scrutinising from counter-narrative advocates. 

Some of my research finding suggest that members of Islamist terrorist groups may have disagreed with an operation that targeted non-combatants as sanctioned by God. Unfortunately, challenging the leader’s order is tantamount to breaking the bai’at, thus questioning their loyalty. Leaving the group is not even an option. This misguided understanding plays a significant role in suppressing the attrition rate among members. In sum, bai’at is an instrument employed by the leadership to control subordinates.

Approaching Ideological Change

CT counter narrative advocates must offer IS supporters the opportunity to ‘unlearn and relearn’ the notion of bai’at from the authentic Islamic viewpoint. 

Firstly is to ‘unlearn’ IS’ practice of bai’at by pondering the ramification of that allegiance. It is no secret that the group blatantly disregards public interest and welfare and only causes civil disorders. A sworn allegiance to the caliph, whoever he is, is an endorsement of IS cruelty. The pro-IS community should then ‘relearn’ the proper understanding of the concept by examining its real purpose as demonstrated by the Prophet Muhammad. One would agree that bai’at, in many accounts during the Prophet’s life, was to promote good and ethically prevent evil. The Quran itself speaks about giving and accepting pledges from people not to steal, commit adultery and fornication, kill their children, or slander. 

Secondly, is to ‘unlearn’ the established understanding among that community that their bai’at is irrevocable. The ‘relearn’ process would reveal that Islamic jurisprudence maintains that any pledge given to a person other than a prophet or messenger of God is revocable as it is conditional. The Prophet Muhammad was reported to have instructed one not to observe obedience to any human being if it involves disobedience of God, such as the commission of injustice, oppression, severing blood ties, among others. An oath of allegiance to IS fits the criteria described by the Prophet, thus invalid and revocable. 

No Time to Waste

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore acknowledge that religious intervention is a crucial component in CVE. These countries should once again be at the forefront to effect ideological change, specifically where bai’at is concerned. A partnership between government agencies, grassroots leaders, social media companies, and non-profitable organizations could positively ramp up the influence to challenge this misguided belief. This small window of ideological intervention has to be optimized before the violent cycle gets under way once again. 

*Muhammad Saiful Alam Shah Sudiman is Associate Research Fellow, International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, National Technological University. He has also been a religious counsellor with Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group for more than 16 years.