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Dissent in IS Ranks; Al-Baghdadi Still in Charge?

FILE - This still image from video posted on a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon in Iraq.

In an extraordinary breach of the Islamic State's culture of unquestioning obedience, an IS writer calling himself Ibn Jubayr has penned a series of five scathing articles leveling direct and unprecedented criticism at the militant group's leadership, according to a respected monitoring group.

The articles come amid a growing number of dissident social media posts by apparent IS members, a stark change in a group where any suggestion of disobedience or criticism normally has been met with harsh punishment, including whippings, torture and often, execution.

The latest articles, monitored last month by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), were published on the Al-Nasihah channel on Telegram, the heavily encrypted phone messaging and social networking application used by IS supporters to communicate with each other.

Ibn Jubayr is believed to be a member of a dissenting circle of IS scholars and clerics, who have been sidelined by power struggles and are dissatisfied with the leadership. They are especially angry at the domination of the upper ranks of the terror group by Iraqis.

In his attack, Ibn Jubayr decried the "Iraqization" of the leadership and questioned whether the militants’ caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is powerless and effectively excluded from decision-making.

MEMRI researchers say over the past year, the group Ibn Jubayr belongs to — all members of the organization’s so-called Bureau of Studies and Research, which is in charge of issuing religious rulings — has become embroiled in a dispute with the organization's leadership and its media department over the esoteric but theologically significant issue about who can declare apostasy in Islam.

But that obscure dispute appears to have morphed into a broader range of complaints.

“This is a series of articles from inside the Islamic State in which we try to expose the men who hold power in it, who have violated the path of the prophecy in their policies in order to attain benefits for themselves and to remain in their positions,” announced Ibn Jubayr.

Throughout the series, he suggests Al-Haj Abdallah, head of IS’s Delegated Committee, the top executive body, has pushed al-Baghdadi aside, reducing him to being merely a symbolic figurehead.

FILE - An Iraqi soldier inspects a train tunnel, adorned with an Islamic State group flag, that was used as training camp for IS fighters, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 1, 2017. IS has since been being rolled up territorially in both Iraq and Syria.
FILE - An Iraqi soldier inspects a train tunnel, adorned with an Islamic State group flag, that was used as training camp for IS fighters, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 1, 2017. IS has since been being rolled up territorially in both Iraq and Syria.

Reports of infighting

Complaints have surfaced in recent months from other quarters within IS with accounts of clashes between different factions in Syria’s eastern province of Deir el-Zour, where IS supporters have called for al-Baghdadi’s ouster and replacement. One of the reasons given was the powerhold Iraqis have on the organization, which is the subject, too, of Ibn Jubayr’s first article.

He decries Iraqi leaders for ensuring that their countrymen maintain positions of power within IS. According to Ibn Jubayr, the policy of “Iraqization” has ensured that “positions of administration and control throughout the Islamic State are held exclusively by Iraqis, while everybody else simply carries out their directives and is subject to only their orders.”

The Iraqis claim non-Iraqis are less trustworthy, but Ibn Jubayr maintains their hold on power has caused “large internal splits in the ranks of the soldiers, to the extent that some of the jihad fighters consider the Iraqi governors to be a nationalist gang and an Iraqi mafia.”

Ibn Jubayr complains that many of the Iraqis appointed as judges or in leadership positions are unqualified, with some not knowing how to read and write, and include criminals who embezzle IS funds to enrich themselves.

“As for the caliph [Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi], may Allah protect him, he is one of two things: Either he is kept in the dark, or he knows about this but was convinced of the necessity of this policy,” said Ibn Jubayr.

The scathing attack is reminiscent of some semi-public criticism by IS supporters in early 2016 when the terror group first started to come under serious military pressure from its foes — including U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces — that eventually led the self-declared caliphate being rolled up territorially in both Syria and Iraq. IS retains a significant presence in remote and rugged areas along the Syrian-Iraqi border.

In February 2016, the widow of an IS fighter voiced rare open criticism of the terror group's leaders, complaining about the treatment of widows and families of dead fighters. Her protest letter, posted online, was circulated widely on pro-IS social media sites, and she clearly had some sympathy within the organization, according to analysts, as her online complaints weren’t deleted.

The woman calling herself al-Muhajirahm, apparently a Westerner, lamented the meager support given to some widows.

“Imagine that you’ve helped a sister who requested zakat [charity] two days ago, but you have ignored the sister who has been waiting a month before,” she writes. “She cries every night, concerned about how to feed her children as her husband is martyred. The tears that roll down her cheeks and the pain she suffers will be something you will be asked about and accountable for,” she added.

In early 2016 with battlefield setbacks mounting rapidly, there were signs of increasing dissent and defections from IS, especially by North African recruits who complained they were treated unequally, receiving less pay and a poorer share of spoils and enslaved women. The group’s leadership responded with brute force, and there were reports of ever more gruesome executions and massacres.